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Technology Discussion—Synthetic Biology, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Scientists have followed up on the task of mapping genomes by attempting to directly alter them.  This effort has gone past the point of injecting a single gene into a plant cell in order to provide a single trait, as in many agricultural biotech efforts.  There are now several projects underway to create entirely new versions of life forms, such as bacteria, with genetic material inserted in the desired combination in the laboratory.
Synthetic biology can be defined as the design and construction of new entities, including enzymes and cells, or the reformatting of existing biological systems.  This science capitalizes on previous advances in molecular biology and systems biology, by applying a focus on the design and construction of unique core components that can be integrated into larger systems in order to solve specific problems.
Engineers and scientists from MIT, Harvard and other institutions are working on a concept called BioBricks, which are strands of DNA with connectors at each end.  BioBricks comprise a standard for interchangeable parts.  They were developed to speed the building of biological systems within living cells.  There is now a Registry of Standard Biological Parts.
A leading proponent of synthetic biology is Dr. Craig Venter, well known for his efforts in sequencing the human genome.  In 2010, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced a significant breakthrough in this field.  Twenty-five researchers formed a team that deciphered the genetic instructions of a simple bacterium.  In a demonstration project that cost $40 million, they built a computerized genetic code of the bacterium.  They then manufactured a series of chemical DNA genetic sequences.  Next, they housed these sequences in yeast and E. coli cells, and tied them together in a single, one million base-pair genome.  Finally, they transplanted this genome into a host cell, transforming this essentially blank cell into a different species of bacteria.
Researchers at Stanford University and the J. Craig Venter Institute developed the first software simulation of an entire 525-gene organism, a single-cell human bacterium found in genital and respiratory tracts.  The breakthrough is a major step towards the development of computerized labs that could conduct thousands of experiments at accelerated rates.
A notable company in synthetic biology is Precigen, Inc. (formerly Intrexon Corporation), a biotech firm based in Blacksburg, Virginia and founded in 1998.  Scientists at Precigen have built a library of 70,000 standard DNA components that can be used to construct genes, thereby controlling gene expression.  Uses for the technology include manufacturing proteins that might be used to create generic versions of patented biotech drugs, such as the growth hormone Epogen.  The components also have potential in the agricultural and industrial sectors.  Precigen itself describes synthetic biology as “the engineering of biological systems to enable rational, design-based control of cellular function for a specific purpose.”  The firm’s RheoSwitch Therapeutic System (RTS) enables in vivo transcriptional regulation of protein expression under control of an orally administered small-molecule ligand.  It also allows for the reprogramming of living cell systems.  Other companies active in synthetic biology include Blue Heron Biotech, ATUM (formerly DNA 2.0) and Thermo Fisher Scientific (which offers the GeneArt Gene Synthesis system).


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