Since this is my first post, I feel I should introduce myself before I dive in. My name is Andy Scarpelli and I’m a third year graduate student in the Interdepartmental Biological Sciences (IBiS) Program here at Northwestern University. I work in a chemical and biological engineering lab, which means I get to experience science as not only a biologist, but a tiny bit as an engineer as well. I work in Dr. Joshua Leonard’s group in the exciting field of synthetic biology. (A field in which Northwestern can accurately claim to have a substantial and growing community.)
Synthetic biology is the next big thing, at least if you consider that the journal Science just had a whole special issue dedicated to the topic. Each paper in the issue (which are almost all great reads) seems to have a different definition of what synthetic biology is, but in my experience, synthetic biology is taking pieces from living organisms and then re-arranging, re-contextualizing, and/or re-purposing these “parts” in order to construct an improved or novel function.
Let me rephrase that. Do you remember playing with Legos as a kid? Synthetic biology is a lot like playing with various sets of Legos. Each box of Legos could put together a single spaceship. (The coolest Legos built spaceships.) The one thing cooler than the intended design involved just taking the lasers and shiny parts from multiple sets and building a cooler spaceship from scratch, which for me meant a shinier one with more lasers. And that’s what synthetic biologists strive to do: we take the parts and programming from multiple species and piece them together to build something new.
For instance, the drug artemisinin can be used to treat malaria, but the compound is made by the plant Artemisia annua, and you need to grow a lot of it to treat a single person. This made it super expensive as a treatment. Luckily for malaria victims, the Keasling lab at UC Berkley decided to take the genes out of Artemisia annua and put them into microbes. (Read more about Dr. Keasling here.)
It seems so easy to think of, but getting these genes to work properly and effectively enough in yeast and E. coli to produce a synthetic version of the drug meant that its cost could be reduced enough to be a viable treatment for people suffering from a horrible disease. Growing this drug in microbes is, in a way, a lot like the Lego spaceships from my childhood. Instead of throwing lasers on a ship, they threw an improved blueprint for making an important drug in a microbe. And they’re likely going to save a lot more lives than my spaceships ever could.
Synthetic biologists are solving real problems, like producing rocket fuel and altering the behavior of immune cells to fight cancer. I hope to be able to discuss on this blog not only how synthetic biology is changing how we can design and build biological systems, but also what this means for the public, how people outside of traditional science can get involved, and, occasionally, just some cool related stuff I find around the internet.