Introduction – a new application of genetic engineering

Many technological advances have been inspired by nature and improved by man to better suit our needs. A typical example is the centenarian acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), which is a natural medicine that dates back to the ancient Egyptians. By chemical modification, its therapeutic properties were improved, and the side effects diminished. Likewise, several other natural occurring compounds were either modified or analogues synthesised to be more active or better tolerated.

In a similar way, Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is inspired by nature, and it can be used to re-design biological systems in order to better understand life processes and perform beneficial functions. SynBio encompasses a range of tools that have arisen within a continuum of technological developments spanning more than three decades. Synbio brings together areas of science and technology beyond biology, including chemistry, physics, engineering and informatics.

SynBio is widely considered to be among the top emerging technologies with the greatest potential to provide solutions to the most compelling social, economic and environmental challenges:

The opportunities it offers range from the old to emerging societal concerns in fields such as health, energy, environment, and food.


What is Synthetic Biology?

The concept of SynBio as it is broadly understood shows a number of common elements that are reflected in the various definitions that have been suggested over time:

  • “Synthetic biology is a) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems and b) the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.”
  • Synthetic biology is the deliberate design and construction of customised biological and biochemical systems to perform new or improved functions. Source: Inter academies of Science
  • “Synthetic biology is an emerging area of research that can broadly be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems. Source: UK Royal Society
  • SynBio is the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms to alter living or non-living materials. Source: European
  • “Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based (or inspired) systems which display functions that do not exist in nature. This engineering perspective may be applied at all levels of the hierarchy of biological structures – from individual molecules to whole cells, tissues and organisms. In essence, synthetic biology will enable the design of ‘biological systems’ in a rational and systematic way.” Source: High-level Expert Group European Commission.


SynBio applications range from fast, cheap diagnostic tools for diseases such as a paper strip test for Ebola, to renewable energy such as artificial photosynthesis, replacement of old production methods with new ones that have less environmental impact, and novel materials. One can, for instance, make use of agricultural waste to produce surfactants, one of the most used classes of chemicals.  There is the possibility of making rubber for tires, which is currently derived entirely from petrochemical sources, from renewable materials via fermentation. As well as, the potential to eliminate plastic waste. It can also improve the production of antibiotics, vaccines and much more.

Perhaps the most cited example is cheap and abundant bio-based anti-malarial compound artemisinin, a highly effective medicine to fight the disease that kills more than 1 million per year, mostly children (References: Newscenter Berkeley.)


Safety and Regulations 

As with any new technological development, it is appropriate to address the question whether in addition to the anticipated benefits, there are risks associated with the use of this new technology.

For current and short-term developments, the existing regulations for GMOs together with over 3 decades of experience in risk assessment and management methodology, provide a good foundation for addressing any potential risks. These systems provide a strong foundation for addressing the potential risks of products of SynBio on a case-by-case basis. Existing biosafety systems include inter alia, the international Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, as well as national and regional guidelines, regulations, and laws to achieve society’s objectives of human, animal and environmental safety.

While advances in SynBio may create additional challenges for the regulatory system, thoughtful research and development of balanced risk-based assessment regulations should foster development in a safe and responsible way. Some countries are now actively developing infrastructure and roadmaps to advance these goals.


Links to further information.



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