Key enabling technologies
There are several key enabling technologies that are critical to the growth of synthetic biology. The key concepts include standardization of biological parts and hierarchical abstraction to permit using those parts in increasingly complex synthetic systems. Achieving this is greatly aided by basic technologies of reading and writing of DNA (sequencing and fabrication), which are improving in price/performance exponentially (Kurzweil 2001). Measurements under a variety of conditions are needed for accurate modeling and computer-aided-design (CAD).
Synthetic biologists make use of DNA sequencing in their work in several ways. First, large-scale genome sequencing efforts continue to provide a wealth of information on naturally occurring organisms. This information provides a rich substrate from which synthetic biologists can construct parts and devices. Second, synthetic biologists use sequencing to verify that they fabricated their engineered system as intended. Third, fast, cheap and reliable sequencing can also facilitate rapid detection and identification of synthetic systems and organisms.
A critical limitation in synthetic biology today is the time and effort expended during fabrication of engineered genetic sequences. To speed up the cycle of design, fabrication, testing and redesign, synthetic biology requires more rapid and reliable de novo DNA synthesis and assembly of fragments of DNA, in a process commonly referred to as gene synthesis.
In 2002 researchers at SUNY Stony Brook succeeded in synthesizing the 7741 base poliovirus genome from its published sequence, producing the first synthetic organism. This took about two years of painstaking work. In 2003 the 5386 bp genome of the bacteriophage Phi X 174 was assembled in about two weeks. In 2006, the same team, at the J. Craig Venter Institute, has constructed and patented a synthetic genome of a novel minimal bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium and is working on getting it functioning in a living cell.
In 2007 it was reported that several companies were offering the synthesis of genetic sequences up to 2000 bp long, for a price of about $1 per base pair and a turnaround time of less than two weeks. As of the present date, September 2009, the price has dropped to less than $0.50 per base pair with some improvement in turn around time. Not only is the price judged lower than the cost of conventional cDNA cloning, the economics make it practical for researchers to design and purchase multiple variants of the same sequence to identify genes or proteins with optimized performance.
Models inform the design of engineered biological systems by allowing synthetic biologists to better predict system behavior prior to fabrication. Synthetic biology will benefit from better models of how biological molecules bind substrates and catalyze reactions, how DNA encodes the information needed to specify the cell and how multi-component integrated systems behave. Recently, multiscale models of gene regulatory networks have been developed that focus on synthetic biology applications. Simulations have been used that model all biomolecular interactions in transcription, translation, regulation, and induction of gene regulatory networks, guiding the design of synthetic systems.
Precise and accurate quantitative measurements of biological systems are crucial to improving understanding of biology. Such measurements often help to elucidate how biological systems work and provide the basis for model construction and validation. Differences between predicted and measured system behavior can identify gaps in understanding and explain why synthetic systems don’t always behave as intended. Technologies which allow many parallel and time-dependent measurements will be especially useful in synthetic biology. Microscopy and flow cytometry are examples of useful measurement technologies.
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