Illustration of DNA helixes for article on history of synthetic biology.
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Published On: January 17th, 2023Categories: Articles, Synthetic Biology

In this brief history of synthetic biology, the most fundamental discoveries in genetics and bioengineering will bring light to how synthetic biology was born. First, genetic discoveries and genome sequencing lay the groundwork for synthetic biology.Later, electrical and bioengineering design brought about synthetic biology’s early years.

To cap off the brief history of synthetic biology, computer science leads synthetic biology into the modern era. Synthetic biology products are already available in the market today, and this burgeoning field has wide-ranging applications.

1961 – Discovery of the Lac Operon

The brief history of synthetic biology starts with genetics. DNA stores all genes, but not all genes are expressed at once, just like closets store all of a person’s clothing but not every clothing item is worn in the same outfit. Gene expression is regulated in patterns. In 1961, Jacob and Monod discovered the lac operon, the first gene regulation pattern to be recognized. In e. Coli bacteria, this operon encodes whether genes will be expressed that let the bacteria metabolize lactose. Understanding this gene regulation pattern marked a breakthrough in genetics and molecular biology.

1970 – Discovery of Restriction Enzymes

Restriction enzymes cleave (cut) DNA at specific sites. Bacteria use restriction enzymes to defend against bacteriophages by cutting viral DNA. Biologists use restriction enzymes to cleave DNA to study or manipulate genetic sequences.

1983 – PCR Technique Created

DNA polymerases are enzymes that catalyze the addition of new base pairs to DNA strands. Kary Mullis created the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. PCR allows scientists to make exact copies of DNA strands similarly to DNA replication in cells. PCR was fundamental in sequencing the human genome.

2000 – Design of First Synthetic Gene Circuits

The genetic toggle switch and the repressilator are the first genetic circuits that humans designed. Earlier in the brief history of synthetic biology, the discovery of the lac operon marked the first naturally-occurring genetic circuit observed by scientists. The genetic toggle switch turns target gene expression on and off. The repressilator oscillates like a circadian rhythm clock. These 2 discoveries proved that gene regulatory networks could be designed from mathematical principles.

2003 – BioBrick Plasmids Invented

Bioparts are components of biological systems designed to meet a technical standard. Tom Knight, a researcher at MIT, developed the BioBrick technical standard for bioparts and the first BioBrick parts. BioBricks use restriction enzymes to insert the genetic code and E. coli plasmids to store the genetic code. Now, the BioBrick Foundation has an open-source technical standard that helps engineers develop even more bioparts compatible with one another.

2004 – Inaugural iGEM Conference

MIT continued to support the budding field of synthetic biology. The first iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) was held at MIT in 2004. Students compete to design genetically engineered machines using synthetic biology techniques every year. The conference has expanded to include students across the globe.

2008 – First Synthetic Bacterial Genome Assembled

The first synthetic bacterial genome consisted of 582,970 base pairs. Prior to this, the longest synthetic DNA strand was 32,000 base pairs. This genome marked the largest synthetically created chemical structure when it was assembled. The genome was of an existing microorganism, but this breakthrough in DNA synthesis paved the way for new organisms to be designed and synthesized.

2012 – CRISPR-Cas9 System Developed

CRISP-Cas9 is a genome editing technique that allows scientists to remove and edit subsections of a DNA strand cheaply. RNA guides the Cas9 enzyme to the target site in DNA, and the Cas9 enzyme cleaves the DNA at that site. This genome editing technique is accurate, fast, and inexpensive, allowing high throughput experiments.

2020 – AI Designed Xenobot

By the 2010s, synthetic biology had made such great advancements that scientists were able to design an artificial intelligence (AI) program that could design bioparts according to synthetic biology standards. Xenobots are self-replicating synthetically created biological machines. In 2020, an artificial intelligence program designed the blueprints for a xenobot.

Brief History of Synthetic Biology- Past, Present, and Future

In this brief history of synthetic biology, the genetics research of the 1960s- 1990s laid the groundwork for synthetic biology. The early 2000s marked the emergence of this growing bioengineering field. Finally, the 2010s and 2020s contained breathtaking advancements, blending computer science and molecular biology to design the future.