Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is an emerging field of science, "focused on the understanding of biological design principles and programming new biological behaviors through the construction of artificial circuits from well-characterized components" (1). It is an engineering-driven approach to biology. SynBio will become a key component of routine and regenerative medicine, environmental protection, food fortification, and biomedical engineering in the years to come.
On April 24th, 2014, Jenn Brophy, Ph.D. Candidate from MIT, visited campus to discuss the past, present, and future of SynBio. Coming from an engineering background, she shared with the students how she came to be interested in Synthetic Biology and what type of career she envisions for herself within this discipline. She also discussed several examples of current developments in SynBio. After the seminar, Ms. Brophy led a BioBuilders demonstration in the Sabin Family Center for Math and Science Exploration.
The BioBuilders program shows students how Synthetic Biologists “program” living cells to tackle today’s challenges like malnutrition or contamination (2). Think using cells like bacteria or yeast to remove toxins from environments or to safely add nutrients to commonly eaten foods. Students and Faculty at the BioBuilders demonstration were given a petri dish containing Baker’s yeast with a bright orange color. This commonly-used yeast was engineered by Synthetic Biologists at MIT to produce loads vitamin A, hence the orange color, and can be used to make bread that is fortified with this nutrient. At the demonstration, the genetic stability of the organism was determined by the frequency at which the yeast lost the orange pigment (i.e. because vitamin A is no longer being produced). It was a simple way for students to observe how questions in SynBio are addressed and how programming living organisms is evaluated.
1. Iterative Plug-and-Play Methodology for Constructing and Modifying Synthetic Gene Networks. Litcofsky, Afeyan, Krom, Khalil* and Collins* (*Co-corresponding) Nature Methods, 9: 1077-80 (2012).