The brave new world at the molecular level: Synthetic Biology

Written by A/Prof Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive, Science Centre Singapore

Last week I received an email from a teacher asking me to check out a competition called iGEM. I went to the website and found this descriptor:

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is the premiere undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. This project design and competition format is an exceptionally motivating and effective teaching method.

I also found out that the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, founded in 2003 at MIT, has a continuously growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems.

Lego Spiders
Lego Spiders by Sappymoosetree

What exactly is synthetic biology? It is a new area of biological research that combines science and engineering. Like Lego blocks that come in different shapes, sizes, colours and functions, living things have their basic building blocks in the form of DNA and other molecules. Scientists see synthetic biology as the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature using the biological ‘Lego parts’. Synthetic biology is of course more complicated than connecting Lego blocks, because there are chemistry, physic, and even mathematical considerations involved, besides biological feasibility.

Contributors to Wikipedia state that:

Biologists are interested in synthetic biology because it provides a complementary perspective from which to consider, analyze, and ultimately understand the living world. Being able to design and build a system is also one very practical measure of understanding. Physicists, chemists and others are interested in synthetic biology as an approach with which to probe the behavior of molecules and their activity inside living cells. Engineers are interested in synthetic biology because the living world provides a seemingly rich yet largely unexplored medium for controlling and processing information, materials, and energy. Learning how to effectively harness the power of the living world will be a major engineering undertaking.

But there are concerns. In addition to numerous scientific and technical challenges, synthetic biology raises questions for ethics, biosecurity, and biosafety.  How to deal with synthetic biology applications has been and will be hotly debated.

Do you think there should be tight regulation for synthetic biology practices in Singapore?

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