Can engineering techniques tame complex life system? Researchers believe that the operating mechanism of biomolecules is extremely complicated.
Some description about the future development has shown that prospects of synthetic biology are beyond imagination. Researchers may program the cells, detect the toxins, produce a large number of bio-fuels from renewable energy sources, and so on. Nowadays, the development of synthetic biology is faced with various challenges from the definition of life “components” to the construction of whole system. However, difficulties cannot stop those dedicated pioneers in this field who are ready to meet the three major challenges in synthetic biology.
Challenge One: many biological components lack of clear description
A biological “component” can be anything, such as the object that can encode a DNA sequence of a specific protein. However, the problem is that the features and functions of many life “components” have not been clearly described. For instance, what are their functions? Will they behave differently under various laboratory conditions?
Registration Center of Standard Biological Components in MIT possesses more than 5 thousand biological components for order. However, according to Randy Berg (director of the center), the quality of those components cannot be guaranteed for they are mainly from participants of the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) who don’t have enough time to carry out these biological components described in detail.
Whereas, the implementation of standardized measure is more difficult. For example, as for mammalian’ cells, it is difficult to predict the results of the integration between introduced gene and cell genome, which is likely to affect the gene expression in surrounding areas. Synthetic biologists from ETH have pointed out that such complexity makes it difficult to pass the detailed description upon those gene components by a standardized method.
Challenge Two: the construction of biological systems is complicated and unpredictable
With bio-circuit’s growth, constructing and testing process have become more difficult as well. In this way, researchers have to test those variant forms generated before one by one to find a variant structure that can sufficiently increase the production, trying to realize the purpose of removing those toxic intermediate molecules. In order to solve similar bottleneck problems, Ginkgo Biological Studio developed a automation system which can combine the gene components together.
At the University of California, Berkeley, synthetic biologist Christopher Anderson and his colleagues are developing a system that can make the bacteria to do the job. E. coli cells that have been genetically modified are known as assemble cells, which can realize the cutting and suturing of the DNA fragments when combined with enzyme. Additionally, there are also some E. coli cells genetically modified to selective cells. Anderson said that this system will shorten the time of assembling a “biological building blocks” from two days to three hours.
Challenge Three: bio-circuit test is complicated and time-consuming
Even if the functions of each biological component are already known, the actual functions might not be as expected after combining the components together. Compared with other modern engineering disciplines’ design process which is more predictable, synthetic biologists have always been tied up with the tedious process of trial and error. In addition, such process requires a large amount of time while the efforts might not be satisfying.
Despite these challenges, synthetic biologists still made a lot of progresses. For example, researchers have developed a system to calculate some biological events by using E. Coli, such as the number of cell division. Furthermore, some systems have evolved from bacterial cells to more complex cells. However, large-scale practical application of synthetic biology still takes more time to achieve.
As the cost of DNA synthesis continues to decline, more and more people begin to focus on the research of synthetic biological components, thus synthetic biology will develop much faster. Carlson said that the question is whether the efforts people paid can finally overcome the biological complexity. Maybe only the future can answer the question.