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What Apocalypse? – Part 6

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering.

The subject combines disciplines from within these domains, such as biotechnology, genetic engineering, molecular biology, molecular engineering, systems biology, membrane science, biophysics, electrical engineering, computer engineering, control engineering and evolutionary biology. Synthetic biology applies these disciplines to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications.

Synthetic biology is seen differently by biologists and engineers. Originally seen as part of biology, in recent years the role of electrical and chemical engineering has become more important. For example, one description designates synthetic biology as “an emerging discipline that uses engineering principles to design and assemble biological components”. Another portrayed it as “a new emerging scientific field where ICT, biotechnology, and nanotechnology meet and strengthen each other”.

The definition of synthetic biology is also debated in the human sciences, arts, and politics. One popular definition:

“designing and constructing biological modules, biological systems, and biological machines or, re-design of existing biological systems for useful purposes”. The functional aspects of this definition are rooted in molecular biology and biotechnology.

As usage of the term has expanded, synthetic biology was recently defined as the artificial design and engineering of biological systems and living organisms for purposes of improving applications for industry or biological research.

In general, its purpose can be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.

Synthetic biology has traditionally been divided into two different approaches. Top-down synthetic biology involves using metabolic and genetic engineering techniques to impart new functions to living cells. Bottom-up synthetic biology involves creating new biological systems in vitro by bringing together ‘non-living’ biomolecular components, often with the aim of constructing an artificial cell. Biological systems are thus assembled module-by-module. Cell-free protein expression systems are often employed, as are membrane-based molecular machinery. There are increasing efforts to bridge the divide between these approaches by forming hybrid living/synthetic cells, and engineering communication between living and synthetic cell populations.


Steven Sheeley

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Post Series: What Apocalypse

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