From synthetic chemistry to synthetic biology
Anna Mapp, University of Michigan
Synthesis is a goal-oriented process that uses basic parts or elements to create more complex structures and that leads to new discoveries and hypotheses and, ultimately, to sets of rules and relationships that predict the paths to follow in preparing complex targets. By such metrics, synthetic chemistry is a mature and highly successful field. The earliest successful chemical synthesis, that of urea by Friedrich Wöhler in 1828, provided critical evidence contradicting the prevailing theory of vitalism. In the ensuing 177 years, chemical synthesis has evolved to the point that virtually all naturally occurring organic molecules can be produced in the laboratory given the appropriate level of effort. By comparison, synthetic biology is still early in its development and synthetic chemistry is vital to its continued evolution. This is particularly true for synthetic biologists that focus on using non-natural molecules to reconstitute the function of natural systems; they must rely on synthetic chemistry to provide them with the critical building blocks. The interplay between the two areas has already produced from artificial components important discoveries such as functional genetic systems. Another branch of synthetic biology employs building blocks from nature to create systems that function non-naturally and has resulted in, for example, the development of a bacterial strain that efficiently synthesizes a key intermediate for the preparation of the anti-malarial agent artemisinin. The next key step in synthetic biology is the codification of synthetic rules that generally govern natural processes.
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