Synthetic biologists see cells as programmable machines that can be constructed (and reconstructed) with interchangeable parts made out of different DNA sequences. Part computer science, part biology, part engineering, and a large part out of the box thinking and creativity this field is helping scientists design and create useful and often fantastical products. Below are five that I’m excited about.
#1 Liquid Silk
A shirt or hat made of spider threads would be incredibly soft and durable but seemingly impossible to make. But not so with synthetic biology. Scientists at Bolt Threads have created both by studying the genetics behind spider silk proteins. They then used this information to develop a fermentation process that produces these same proteins using yeast, sugar, and water. The result – liquid silk. Once produced this liquid can be purified, solidified, spun into fibers, and woven into fabrics. Recently, the company has expanded its product line by introducing its next invention which is a leather-like material made from mushrooms.
#2 Plastics from Thin Air
Scientists at Newlight Technologies spent 15 years designing and perfecting a carbon sequestration system that uses microorganisms to transform methane gas into biodegradable plastics. Today this system combats climate change, produces a versatile green plastic alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics, and turns a profit. While numerous companies are working to turn greenhouse gases into useful materials many struggle with low yields and high operating costs. Newlight overcame these challenges by using synthetic biology techniques to create a chemical reaction system in its microorganisms that never turns off. As a consequence, its plastics are less expensive than traditional plastics. Today, these carbon neutral and biodegradable plastics are being used by companies like Ikea and Dell and may already be in your home.
#3 Climate Friendlier Cement
The company bioMason is hoping to revolutionize the cement industry and tackle climate change by using bioengineered bacteria to “grow” bricks. These biocementTM bricks are as strong as traditional cement and are made on-site using local materials. The process involves adding sand, non-pathogenic bacteria, and calcium ions to a mold and then incubating them. The bacteria convert the calcium ions into a calcium carbonate which creates an incredibly durable and strong solid matrix. This offers a far more energy-efficient approach than traditional cement pouring, which between mining/preparation/transportation, is estimated to be responsible for more than 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As a bonus, the bricks come with some nifty add-ons such as glow in the dark, pollution absorption, or thermal color change features.
#4 A Synthetic Jellyfish that Cleans instead of Stings
Straight out of science fiction, these living tissue structures move like jellyfish which means they can navigate the oceans with minimal energy requirements. (Jellyfish are the star swimmers of the animal kingdom and need half the amount of energy as most other marine animals). These structures can also sense basic environmental conditions like heat or the presence of certain chemicals and can move both away from or towards these conditions. The next step for the scientists involved is to add in enzyme genes that will allow these systems to break down different toxins and pollutions into more benign subparts. Once this is accomplished these synthetic jellyfish can swim through the oceans on seek and destroy missions where they could congregate around oil spills or similar areas of concentrated pollution, detoxify the waters, and then biodegrade after the job is done.
#5 Animal-Free Meat
If you’re looking for a synthetic biology project that’s made the leap from the lab to a store near you, look no further than meatless meats. To imitate the taste and nutrient profile of traditional meat these companies studied the molecules found in animal tissue and then identified similar proteins and fats in plants. However, in some cases, producing large amounts of plant proteins was cost prohibitive. So scientists used synthetic biology and processes such as fermentation to efficiently produce them in large batches. How close did they come to imitating the taste of meat? You can decide for yourself next time you go to the grocery store or to a fast-food drive-through. And keep a lookout as several companies are also expanding into plant-based dairy and eggs.
In all the examples above the project began when someone identified a problem or a goal, worked with others to brainstorm several possible solutions, and then developed a plan to address the top ideas (the design step). They then implemented this plan in the lab and created the system that they’d envisioned using molecular biology techniques (the create step). Finally, they assessed the performance of the newly created biological system (the test step). This test step often highlighted possible improvements as well as possible problems, which began a new cycle of design.
While diverse, synthetic biology projects share this common “design-create-test” process as well as the common view that DNA sequences are powerful tools that can be standardized and reused much like computer code commands. Learn more about this exciting field by helping your class create sweet smelling bacteria in our Investigating Synthetic Biology experiment.