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Image of machined DNA for article on synthetic biology.
Published On: March 22nd, 2022

When you begin learning about synthetic biology, it can feel like reading a science fiction novel. The terminology and techniques can be challenging, but this field is worth exploring.Read on to learn about the definition of synthetic biology and the two most common synthetic biology approaches.

Synthetic Biology Definition

Synthetic biology is an emerging field of bioengineering that combines genetics and systems biology with engineering principles. Synthetic biology approaches require interdisciplinary collaboration between microbiologists, engineers, mathematicians, and chemists.

Synthetic biology aims to design new biological systems that can perform useful functions or produce useful outputs. Synthetic biology can be applied in many industries, ranging from healthcare to agriculture. Now that you know what synthetic biology means, let’s dive into the methodology.

Top-down Synthetic Biology Approaches

The first major category of synthetic biology approaches is top-down, which means modifying existing cells to give them new functions. The cells being modified are called the chassis. It’s easier to modify simple cells because it’s easier to predict a change’s effect on the cell. For this reason, the chassis is usually a unicellular organism, like E. coli.

The modifications being introduced into the chassis are called bioparts. Bioparts are often extracted DNA fragments or proteins. Bioparts and chassis are like building blocks for biological systems. These blocks can be tested in different configurations and systems to see which construction works best.
Genome minimization is a common strategy for top-down synthetic biology approaches. Scientists knock out genes to see whether those genes are necessary for the genome. The goal is to create a minimal cell with the simplest possible genome so that modifications have predictable results.

Bottom-up Synthetic Biology Approaches

The second major category of synthetic biology approaches is bottom-up, which refers to building and studying non-living bioparts. Those bioparts can eventually be used to create synthetic cell-like structures that can perform functions like DNA synthesis. Currently, bottom-up synthetic biology is geared towards building modules that act like organelles. For example, synthetic bioparts that mimic vesicles are being tested as drug-delivery systems.

Bottom-up synthetic biology approaches might help scientists create biological systems without evolutionary waste. Many genes are byproducts of evolution, leftover from previous evolutionary stages of an organism. Imagine a cell that uses each of its genes to perform its functions. Creating organelles and synthetic cells from scratch will help scientists understand how cells evolve.

Summary of Synthetic Biology Approaches

Top-down and bottom-up synthetic biology approaches have the same end goal: to break living organisms down into interchangeable parts that can be modified to create useful biological systems.

Top-down approaches work with existing living systems, where bottom-up approaches test the boundaries of what can be synthesized. Both approaches require an efficient lab workflow to express and purify proteins, record data, and measure outputs. Eventually, both approaches will work together as bottom-up approaches lead to minimal synthetic cells that can be modified with bioparts.

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