08 October 2012

Synthetic Biology Combined With Systems Biology Can Help Artificially Engineered Cells To Solve Environmental Problems

Transmission electron micrograph of metabolically engineered Escherichia coli cells accumulating poly(lactate-co-3hydroxybutyrate) copolymers
A new and emerging field in biology is synthetic biology. According to the synthetic biology community, synthetic biology can be defined as:
  • The design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and;
  • the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.
Synthetic biology is split into two types or disciplines. One group looks at creating unnatural cells to copy or mimic natural molecules. This can be done by inserting man-made dna to a cell, for instance. Another group looks at using natural cells and molecules and placing them within a system which makes it behave unnaturally.

Combining this field of science with systems biology, which is the study of how cell structures behave as one whole system, scientists can construct a cell or group of cells to function in a way that can help solve a particular problem.

An example of this would be to artificially construct a cell or a system that can address an environmental problem such as an oil spill. A scientist can construct an organism that can convert petroleum polluting the ocean into a biodegradable product or even oxygen.

Another way would be to create a cell to produce a biodegradable fuel such as the ones used in manufacturing algae-based fuel. There are even microbes that can directly produce electricity (piezoelectricity).

Medical applications can also benefit this technology. Microbes and microbial systems such as cancer detecting molecules or even organisms that can target a specific harmful protein can be created.

Super-microbes engineered to solve world environmental problems

Environmental problems, such as depleting natural resources, highlight the need to establish a renewable chemical industry. Metabolic engineering enhances the production of chemicals made by microbes in so-called "cell factories". Next Monday, world class scientist Professor Sang Yup Lee of KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) will explain how metabolic engineering could lead to the development of solutions to these environmental problems.

For example, the polyester polylactic acid (PLA) is a biodegradable material with a wide range of uses, from medical implants, to cups, bags, food packaging and disposable tableware. It and its co-polymer can be produced by direct fermentation of renewable resources using metabolically engineered Escherichia coli.

Video: What is Synthetic Biology

Microorganisms isolated from nature use their own metabolism to produce certain chemicals. But they are often inefficient, so metabolic engineering is used to improve microbial performance. Beginning in the 1990s, metabolic engineering involves the modification of microbial cells to enhance the production of what's known as a bioproduct. This bioproduct can be something that the cell produces naturally, like ethanol or butanol. It can also be something that the cells mechanisms can produce if their natural metabolic pathways are altered in some way. The range of uses of this bioproduct can be broadened through metabolic engineering, which can also optimize the overall process of bioproduct synthesis.

Recently, metabolic engineering has become more powerful, through the integration of itself with systems and synthetic biology. Systems biology is a relatively new approach to biological research which looks at the complex interactions within whole cell systems. It allows cell-wide understanding of metabolic reactions and the way these are regulated by the cell's genes.

Synthetic biology is another new approach that designs and constructs new biological functions and systems that aren't found in nature. It allows the design of new genes, modules and circuits that can be used to modulate the cells metabolism to make more of the desired bioproduct. So systems metabolic engineering can now develop superior microorganisms much more efficiently through the integration of itself with systems biology and synthetic biology.

Professor Lee will introduce general strategies for systems metabolic engineering which will be accompanied by many successful examples, including the production of chemicals, fuels and materials such as propanol, butanol, 1,4-diaminobutane, 1,5-diaminopentane, succinic acid, polyhydroxyalkanoates, and polylactic acid.

Professor Sang Yup Lee said: "Bio-based production of chemicals and materials will play an increasingly important role in establishing a sustainable world. To make the bioprocess efficient and economically competitive, it is essential to improve the performance of microorganisms through systems metabolic engineering. From industrial solvents to plastics, an increasing number of products of everyday use will be produced through bioprocesses."

Professor Lee will present the 5th Environmental Microbiology Lecture on 8 October 2012 at the Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, London W1G 0AE. Registration begins at 17.30 and the lecture will start 18.30. There will be a drinks reception after the lecture at 19.30 - 20.30.


The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
Royal Society of Medicine
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