Synthetic biology: Engineering or Biology?

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Undergraduate research assistant Jordan Harrison cooks up a storm in the Tullman-Ercek synthetic biology lab (eating not advised). Photo credit: Han Teng Wong, used with permission.

I recently got into a debate with a colleague about whether or not I am a biologist. According to this biologist, I cannot possibly be a microbiologist because my lab is part of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. As such, I “had” to be an engineer. It didn’t matter to him that I knew more about genetics or cell biology than catalysis or fluid dynamics, or that I’m enrolled in a microbiology graduate program.

My lab works on synthetic biology or the engineering of biology. This entails using “tools and concepts from physics, engineering, and computer science to build new biological systems” (I’m quoting our website).

To me, calling me an engineer is akin to calling an accountant who works at Pixar an animator.

Think of it in terms of cooking. Modernist cooks and molecular gastronomers use tools not commonly found in a traditional kitchen-- like blow torches and liquid nitrogen – to reinvent how we create dishes. Synthetic biology looks to bringing a new set of tools into the realms of biology. Modernist cuisine is still about food, and synthetic biology is still about biology.

So how is synthetic biology different from other subfields of biology? The crux lies in the application of engineering principles. As Karl pointed in a previous article on HELIX, engineers think differently from scientists. Engineers like to tinker and make things, while a scientist likes to find out how things work. An engineer wants to make the perfect kitchen tools. A scientist wonders how flavors develop during searing. And the best meals, combine both of these skill sets.

Now as something of a foodie, my perfect dinner has an amuse bouche, appetizers, entrees, palate cleansers, dessert and, of course, the perfectly-pulled latte. To achieve all this, even the most exquisite restaurant needs a range of specialist cooks – a pâtissier, a saucier, a Boulanger and more.

And synthetic biology is no different. Most synthetic biology labs have a huge mix of researchers who all bring different, complimentary skills to the table. A prime example would be Dr. Tyo’s synthetic biology lab at Northwestern University, where chemical engineers, biologists, and a computer scientist come together to cook up the perfect storm. This way, new and multi-purpose solutions to biological problems can be developed!

For example, the Tyo lab team collaborates on designing promiscuous enzymes. Enzyme promiscuity means an enzyme that usually works in one context is transposed to work in another context, too. Sort of like having a line cook who can man the grill and prep the vegetables. A talented, versatile line cook reduces the number of different types of cooks you need. Likewise, the multi-tasking enzyme reduces the number of enzymes you need for certain biological functions.

My computer science colleague Matthew Moura, uses algorithms to predict how the various biological combinations will work before a single enzyme is tested. He can also use the number-crunching power of computers to calculate designs for bacteria (for example, bacteria which can make antiretroviral drugs). This predictive computer modeling cuts down the number of physical experiments we do, narrowing our attention to only the combinations most likely to work – which is cheaper and faster and more efficient than testing each possible permutation in the lab. This way, you can design the perfect recipe for an engineered biological system without getting your hands dirty in the wet lab.

I think of synthetic biology as a different way to prepare a dish rather than a different cuisine. Using modernist techniques does not make you less of a chef, and using engineering tool doesn’t make me less of a microbiologist; I just use a slightly different toolkit.

Just as a cook can use a traditional Dutch over or an unconventional sous vide to keep coq-au-vin super moist, synthetic biologists can approach traditional biological problems from a different perspective and sometimes with unexpected tools. And like that tender coq-au-vin, we hope to arrive at juicy new solutions.

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