Synthetic biology is a relatively young field, begun only about ten years ago. But in that time, we have made some astonishing progress. This is due, in part, to the enormous improvements in our ability to synthesize and sequence DNA. But we’ve also gained a much greater understanding of how the various parts of the genome interact. We now can reliably combine various genetic pieces to produce a range of consumer products, from biofuels to cosmetics.
In medicine, the synthetic biology community is pushing the boundaries by designing microbes that will seek and destroy tumors in the body before self-destructing. Synthetic biology also provides us a way to clean up our environment. We can build organisms to consume toxic chemicals in water or soil that would not otherwise decompose, for example. It can also help us to better understand flu strains and create vaccines. Synthetic biology will even help us feed the world. At MIT, researchers are working to build a process that will allow plants to fix nitrogen. If successful, farmers will no longer require fertilizer for their crops.
That’s not all we’re doing with plants, either. At the Joint BioEnergy Institute in California, scientists have found a way to expand the sugar content of biomass crops to increase their density and decrease the cost of biofuels produced from them. We envision that eventually we will be able to build just about anything from biology. Don’t be surprised if one day your computer has biological parts.
See on www.pbs.org