Last week, Senate approved the creation of a new Centre for Synthetic Biology. This is an exciting emerging area of science in which Newcastle University has an excellent opportunity to excel. In order to understand what synthetic biology is and why it is important, it is worthwhile looking at the field from an historic perspective.
For many years, scientific research has relied upon the so-called reductionist approach. In essence, this involves breaking down a given problem into its component parts. If we take a simple example such as understanding how a transistor radio works, for example, the reductionist would take the radio apart and find out what each component does. We would for example discover that a transistor is a special kind of electronic switch that has the ability to amplify signals on the basis of the electronic current that flows through it. Similarly, we could analyse all the other components and then discover how the complete unit works by considering how each piece interacts.
In recent times however, a new discipline called systems biology has arisen, whose philosophy is very different from the reductionist approach. Instead, as the name suggests, the idea is to understand the system as a whole. Thus, in the case of the transistor radio analogy, we would model the system in its entirety. We would not examine in detail how a transistor works, but instead we would model it as part of the network of current flow in the radio circuit. In the same way, systems biology considers complete biosynthetic pathways rather than focussing on the individual molecules that comprise them. The advantage of this approach is that one can ask what will happen to the pathway when one of the molecules is removed or changed in some way – by modelling the pathway, it is possible to determine the flux of the metabolites.
In practice this modelling is done by solving systems of differential equations, and the number of such equations for even a modest biosynthetic pathway is such that significant computer power is required, together with novel computational techniques to handle both the required volume and complexity of the data. A ‘Holy-Grail’ of systems biology is the ‘virtual cell’, where all the processes and interactions in a biological cell are modelled correctly in silico. One could then interrogate the system to find out how the cell responds to a molecule that inhibits a given pathway, for example. This technology will however not be available sometime soon!
Synthetic biology represents the logical next-step from systems biology. The idea is to design or redesign biological systems for useful purposes. In Newcastle, the Centre will principally focus on the world-class expertise that exists in microbiology in the Faculty of Medical Sciences, together with expertise in the School of Computing Sciences within SAgE. Synthetic biology fits squarely within the Sustainability Grand Challenge. For example, in the USA, scientists have modified micro-organisms to produce butanol, which is both an important raw material for the chemical industry and is also a biofuel. It is very easy and inexpensive to culture micro-organisms in large fermenters to produce very large quantities of butanol in a sustainable way. In theory, we can also produce pharmaceuticals, thus reducing the multi-step chemical syntheses that are very inefficient and consume significant quantities of waste organic solvents.
Synthetic biology is a truly interdisciplinary field that will involve not only microbiologists and computer scientists, but also physicists and engineers. Indeed, there have been publications that demonstrate the implementation of electronic logic gates using biological components. Other promising uses include waste detection and water toxicity removal. In fact the possibilities are endless and no doubt we will be hearing a lot more about the developments in this field as the Centre builds in momentum over the next few years.