Making something from nothing

Synthetic biology refers to both:

▪ The design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world
▪ The re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems.

The exciting field of Synthetic Biology is evolving so rapidly that no widely accepted definitions exist. The common explanation for synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to the fundamentals of biology. It combines the mechanics of engineering and biology together in order to design and build new biological functions, systems & cells.

In the research I’ve done of synthetic biology I discovered that it was closely related to genetic engineering. In genetic engineering a scientist applies similar methods that permit direct manipulation of the genetic material in order to alter the hereditary traits of a cell. In synthetic biology, different components of a cell work together to provide numerous functionalities; membranes, mitochondria, liposomes & enzymes are an example of the different parts of a cell that work in conjunction with one another in order for the cell to operate. All of these separate parts are coded for in a cell’s DNA, in much the same way as a computer program needing its code in order for it to work. Thus similar to the way we use different bits of code in various computer programs, we can also use parts of DNA to refine and manually design a cell’s functionality.

The individual strands of DNA are known as Bio-Bricks in synthetic biology. Similar to real bricks in a building, a Bio-Brick can be used to construct complex biological structures, which ultimately affect the cells behavior and tasks. A few genes may be added or deleted from a cell’s structure, but these genes already exist in nature. In synthetic biology we are creating biological parts that do not exist, either by extensively modifying the existing DNA code or by creating entirely new parts of code that produce completely innovative structures. Even manipulating a single cell can lead to a vast array of potential ideas and creations can be toyed with – creating cells that produce unique high-tech products that human’s can harvest and use. Some examples may include: biological concrete, creating low cost drugs that will overcome global shortages for diseases such as malaria or synthetic heart valves or organs. The process of modifying a cell’s genetic material is safe because the cells are designed not to reproduce outside of a scientifically controlled artificial environment; this makes them a safe, environmentally friendly, renewable product.


Biomaterials are the foundation of building and designing new things. An example of a bio material may be the tissue created for a heart valve replacement. Current available heart valve prostheses are categorized into mechanical or bio prosthetic replacement valves. Mechanical valves offer excellent structural durability but are prone to high stress and blood damage. Therefore, patients receiving a mechanical prosthesis are committed to daily anti coagulation therapy (prevents clotting of blood), which results in an increased risk of hemorrhage problems. Bio prostheses are more susceptible to structural valve degeneration, and the associated need for re-operation makes them less suitable for middle aged and young patients. Current clinical guidelines recommend the use of a bio prosthetic valve in patients aged 65 years and older.

Ecovative grow materials from agricultural byproducts and mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells. The mycelium digests the agricultural byproducts, binding them into a beautiful structural material. Ecovative are applying this mycelium-glue technology to create next generation bio composite materials using engineered textiles. 

The future of design requires thinking innovatively about the way current construction techniques function so we may expand upon their capabilities. Sustainability has evolved far beyond being a trend and has become an indelible part of this design process. The university of UPC has developed a concrete that sustains and grows a range of Plantae and biological organisms on its surface.
The biological layer that promotes plant growth is in fact concrete. Under it is specially engineered cement that promotes plant growth. For plants to be able to sustain and grow healthily the pH levels in the concrete need to be below a reading of 5. To create the biological layer of concrete they used magnesium phosphate cement that is slightly more acidic and does not require treatment as it naturally has low pH levels. 

Synthetic Biology is opening up new doors in the fields of science, engineering and design. The possibilities are virtually endless in what we can create. The ability to design and build biological systems provides a new way to understand how living things work, yet the field is much more about engineering than it is about pure science. However, many synthetic biologists are seeking to solve problems in more efficient ways than traditional engineering does, with potential applications ranging from fighting pollution and cancer to manufacturing fuel and drugs. Many environmentalists argue instead that creating new life forms could endanger the existing ones. But it may be that synthetic biology is our best hope of preserving life on our planet.

I believe the benefits of synthetic biology are crucial for transforming our current environmental footprint. We have had such a global impact on the health of our planet that the clock has almost run out. I believe that synthetic biology is our key to a doorway of a fresh sustainable living. In theory, the uses and applications of synthetic biology are only limited by our imagination.




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