Synthetic Biology in a nutshell

Synthetic Biology is delivering major breakthroughs in fields such as health, environmental science and biomanufacturing. In this animation discover the basics of SynBio, the public debate around it and its potential to support sustainable flavonoid production.

Music Credit: Elastic Vibe by Ziv Moran

After watching the animation you may find you have some more questions, what is below can help you to further understand what Synthetic biology means for the production of flavonoids.

Can natural organisms actively change their own and foreign genomes?
Active genetic modification strategies have been developed by a wide range of microorganisms to complement cloning, their main way of reproduction. Cloning happens through cell division resulting in identical organisms. It is a material and energy-saving strategy that enables rapid multiplication when environmental conditions are favourable. To enable adaptivity to varying environmental conditions, other strategies for genetic variations have emerged that are independent from reproduction. Bacteria can actively uptake DNA fragments from their environment, or they can selectively transfer some of their own beneficial DNA sequences to other bacteria to enhance their capabilities, such as resistance to antibiotics. This transfer of genes is called horizontal gene transfer.

What is the CRISPR system?
CRISPR is a natural defence strategy of many bacterial species against viral attacks – as part of their immune system. Bacteria store genetic copies of viral DNA within their own DNA to be able to distinguish between beneficial and harmful DNA. When recognizing invading harmful viral DNA, they make it ineffective by cutting it up. The natural bacterial CRISPR system involves a guiding tool to identify the invading DNA and a scissor tool to perform the cut.

Who has discovered the potential of CRISPR for genetic engineering?
The role of the CRISPR system as a natural bacterial defence strategy was initially discovered by Francisco Mojica. Later Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna envisioned the potential of this system for genome editing. They developed a simple and highly precise method that can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined position. Since their first publication on CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their method has contributed to multiple advancements in life sciences. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

What are promising potentials of synthetic biology in the field of medical applications?
Completely new medical strategies are expected with the potential of synthetic biology. The envisioned applications comprise the treatment of inherited diseases, prevention and treatment of cancer, engineered tissues, new diagnostic methods, engineered therapeutic microbes, the development of biosensors, and many others.

What is a very successful example for medical applications of genetic engineering?
Probably one of the most prominent examples of genetic engineering for medical applications is the production of insulin for diabetics by genetically modified microorganisms since 1982. The acknowledgement of genetic engineering for this medical application lowered the costs of insulin production substantially and made it increasingly affordable worldwide.

What are promising potentials of synthetic biology regarding climate change combat?
The effects of climate change may impact the health of many living organisms. Unusual changes in the environment cause imbalances that go hand in hand with weaker immune systems, resulting in higher susceptibility for diseases. To ensure food security worldwide new types of crops are being researched that shall be more resistant to drought, pests and moulds. In addition, biosensors could help to reveal environmental contaminations at early stages enabling effective countermeasures to prevent severe damages.

What are examples for agricultural applications of genetic engineering?
The goals of genetic modification in farm plants include the improvement of resistance to diseases. Introduced resistances may also compensate for resistances lost along with selective breeding. Other goals are directed towards the enhancement of food sources with health promoting substances that are locally not available or are only available in very small quantities. ‘Golden rice’ represents an improved food source intended to fight lethal illnesses and blindness of humans in areas that lack sufficient Vitamin A in common food.

Why is standardisation important in synthetic biology?
Standardisation is generally intended to facilitate communication and production. Synthetic biology works with standardised genetic parts and clusters of DNA that enable specific functions when inserted in microorganisms or cells. The design and engineering-based approach of synthetic biology allows interchangeability and modularity, that shall speed up and reduce the costs of DNA synthesis.

What are debates on genetic engineering in Europe about?
In the European Union, the commercial application of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is highly regulated, which is stricter than in many other parts of the World. Nonetheless, research in the field of genetic modification is advancing worldwide, with envisioned applications for many fields. Medical applications appear to gain higher approval than agricultural applications. Whilst genetic engineering is considered too high a risk by opponents, proponents plead for easing GMO regulations and point out the economic and social costs of an anti-GMO stance.