Over the past 15 years, research in biology, physics and engineering have created opportunities at the interface of these disciplines. It has also become evident that the principles of mechanical engineering can be applied to biology in the new field of “synthetic biology”.
Research in this area investigates how to design and build artificial, biological based machines using engineering principles and procedures. This is by taking molecular and sub-cellular components and the principles of naturally occurring biological systems. Then characterising and simplifying them. These components can then be used to engineer what would essentially be artificial (synthetic) biological materials, devices, machines and systems. Such development can be used for applications in medicine, energy, the environment and industry. There are two main areas of synthetic biology. One is the ‘top down’ approach. Here the cells genetic and protein synthesis systems are used – essentially a variation of genetic engineering. The second is the ‘bottom up’ approach. Here individual molecules or collections of molecules are used and assembled. These components could be taken from different species and combined together to produce a new device or machine that does not already exist in nature.
It is a considerable challenge to work at the molecular scale. The technologies of nano-imaging and manipulation of biological samples has progressed significantly. One can now image, characterise and manipulate biological molecules from the macro down to the nano-scale. Current microscopy techniques can use living samples and so the dynamic nature of cellular and molecular processes can be shown. Thus their behaviour can be predicted, quantified and used in ways not possible previously. These advanced techniques have made synthetic biology possible.
Internationally, synthetic biology is still in its early stages of development. The challenge is to integrate biological molecular components with each other and with non-biological components to yield new technologies. The initial focus being on bio-photonic, bio-nanodevices and molecular bio-materials. However considerable progress has been made in some areas – particularly in the more conventional ‘top down’ genetic engineering approach. This has mainly be due to the fact that this approach arose from an already existing established research methodology. Another significant stimulus came from the establishment of the systematic method developed at MIT using standardised components and chassis for how genes can be added to a genome. Alongside this was the introduction of the iGEM (internationally Genetically Engineered Machines) competition. This is a competition run by MIT primarily for undergraduate students. The competition grew rapidly from an initial few groups from MIT being involved to what is now a competition involving hundreds of groups and thousands of students from all around the world many from world leading Universities.