The time is now for developing biology into a full-fledged engineering field.
Synthetic biology seeks to design and construct biological components that can be modeled, understood, tuned to meet specific criteria, and assembled into larger integrated systems that solve specific problems. Such capabilities could transform biology in the way that integrated-circuit design transformed computing. Researchers could redesign enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells to their specifications, or even build biological systems from scratch.
Scientists have already made significant strides toward engineering microörganisms that produce ethanol, bulk chemicals, and drugs from inexpensive starting materials (see “From the Labs”). The work has been slow, however, in large part because engineers lack the tools to easily and predictably reprogram existing systems, let alone build new ones.
One problem is that the development of system components – genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, parts of enzymes – receives little emphasis in biology. Biologists who want to control gene expression, for example, usually use natural systems or slight variations on them. Although these redesigned biological control systems have generally served biologists’ intended purposes (for example, production of a single pharmaceutical protein), they are often inadequate for more complicated engineering tasks.
Another problem is that there are few or no standards for biological components. In almost every other field of engineering, standardization makes it easy to combine parts made by different manufacturers. A similar system of standards that governs how biological components should work together would help biologists and biological engineers to design and build new devices.
Finally, of the biological components that are already available, many of the most effective have been patented. Open-source biological parts and devices, and eventually whole cells, could lead to engineered biological systems that are cheaper and better designed.
Standardized, readily available biological components, developed under an appropriate intellectual-property model, would open a promising new front in the biotechnology industry. Given the potential of synthetic biology, it is in our best interest to work out these details soon.
Jay Keasling is a professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley.