The Design of Life
What do the production of Insulin, synthesis of biofuels, corn enriched with vitamins, or the degradation of environmental pollutants have in common? It might be hard to recognize at first sight. However, those processes can all be performed by genetically engineered organisms. The field of research behind genetic modification is called synthetic biology. It offers a huge variety of possibilities for our society. But how does genetic engineering work? We are going to explain it to you from the start.
Every organism on our planet contains its own blueprint – the DNA. A universal code that is structured in the form of genes and can be translated to produce a variety of biomolecules in a living organism. DNA defines how we look, how our body works, how we behave and much more. Its structure makes the difference between a cactus and a human. But what would happen if we would be able to transfer the DNA between different organisms ? If we could change the defining characteristics of life?
This, precisely, is one of the main questions for synthetic biologists. They begin with identifying a gene, responsible for specific abilities. After that, this gene can be isolated from an organism and copied multiple times. The gene sequence must be cut and “glued” into the DNA of the target organism. The modified DNA is translated into a protein, which then carries out its specific function.
Let us give you a few more examples to emphasize the importance of synthetic biology in our today's world. Insulin can be produced by inserting the human insulin sequence in the bacterial DNA. The modified bacteria are then able to produce high amounts of the important hormone. Therefore, Insulin gets particularly cheaper, does not cause rejection and is much more accessible for everyone.
One more example: Vitamins are an essential part of our nutrition. The nutrition of certain developmental countries is mainly based on rice. Unfortunately, a rice-based diet causes a lack of Vitamin A, which results in many deficiencies. Scientists genetically modified rice plants by including genes for Vitamin A - synthesizing the “Golden Rice”. The number of Vitamin A deficiencies thereby decreased significantly.
What makes synthetic biology unique is the aspect of engineering. Organisms comprise several complex systems and circuits. These systems are based on different building blocks which can be reorganized and recombined in synthetic biology. Engineering allows us to create new reaction cascades or artificial regulatory mechanisms in cells with completely new functions. As scientists, we can therefore optimize our work. We share our “building blocks” with other research groups to contribute to progress in genetic engineering.
As we could see, the imagination knows no limits in synthetic biology.