What is Synthetic Biology?

Shannon Kietzman

Synthetic biology is form of biological study that involves creating a holistic understanding of a concept by combining several areas of research. More recently, the term synthetic biology has come to represent a form of research that combines science with engineering. In this way, new biological systems and functions can be designed and built.

Synthetic biology combines several areas of research.
Synthetic biology combines several areas of research.

The term synthetic biology was first used in 1978, after Daniel Nathans, Werber Arber, and Hamilton O. Smith won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The prize was awarded after the Nathans, Arber, and Smith discovered restriction enzymes and determined how to apply them to problems found in molecular genetics. This allowed scientists to reconstruct recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules, as well as to analyze individual genes. This example of synthetic biology made it possible for scientists to describe and analyze existing gene arrangements, as well as new arrangements constructed by the human hand.

Synthetic biology is commonly used in the study of genetics. With synthetic biology, researchers can create a DNA model and place it inside living cells in order to observe the outcome. This helps researchers test their theories and predict genetic outcomes.

Since biological systems are actually physical systems comprised of chemicals, synthetic biology has led to the field of synthetic chemistry. Synthetic biology and synthetic chemistry go hand-in-hand, as natural chemicals are used to design and to create new chemicals. The ultimate goal of synthetic biology is to design and build biological systems that are engineered to process information, as well as to change chemicals, create materials, provide food, produce energy, maintain and improve human health, and maintain and improve the environment.

Synthetic biology does, however, have its challenges. Bioethicists are largely concerned about the potential misuse of synthetic biology by terrorist countries. The same metals created to build sewing needles and plows, for example, were later used to created spears and swords. Nuclear physics created radiation treatments for cancer, but also resulted in nuclear weapons. Opponents fear that, although synthetic biology may be able to find a cure for malaria, the same field can also be used to create a biological weapon for which there is no cure.

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