Orion Weiner, University of California, San Francisco
Much of our current understanding of biological systems has been obtained through deconstructionist means. Through the use of genetic and pharmacological perturbations, we have learned much about the macromolecules that organize complex living systems. Synthetic biology represents a complementary reconstructive approach where these basic components are assembled into novel biological circuits. Learning by building is a powerful way to investigate and interrogate living systems. This approach has been used to investigate whether minimal biological circuits can account for complex behaviors ranging from biological clocks to multicellular pattern formation. Besides mimicking the organization of natural systems, we can test the performance of alternative biological circuits to elucidate why evolution may have employed a given solution.
Synthetic biology also represents a very powerful engineering platform that enables us to build useful new systems. For example, living cells can be engineered to perform complex chemical syntheses for pharmaceuticals or biofuels. Synthetic biology has benefited from development in several fields including an explosion of well-characterized biological components, advances in modeling, and plummeting costs of DNA synthesis. We are entering an exciting time where synthetic biology is beginning to combine simple genetic devices (“toy” sensors, circuits, actuators) to form ever-more sophisticated programs and useful biological systems. “Smart” cells are being designed to solve problems from cheap and efficient detection of environmental contaminants to finding and killing cancer cells in vivo. We’ll discuss some of the challenges in harnessing this powerful new approach to biology.