"Plug and Play" Comes to Synthetic Biology
News Apr 28, 2009
Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have developed a strategy for generating “plug-and-play” components for synthetic genetic networks that may someday nudge algae to create biofuels, help microbes make new materials, or even lend greater precision to beer brewing.
Those components could make life easier for synthetic biologists, who use engineering design principles to assemble genes and proteins into novel biological systems. HHMI investigator James J. Collins says his new tools should reduce the extensive tweaking required to make synthetic gene networks operate correctly. “This will fast-track the field of synthetic biology,” Collins said. “It enables one to make predictable networks.”
“It can take months if not a year or years to get the network to behave. You have to do an awful lot of tweaking to get your network to work the way you want,” said James J. Collins.
Collins and his colleagues at Boston University described their research in an April 19, 2009, advance online publication in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Collins applies the basic rules for how genes and proteins operate to the new field of synthetic biology, which brings engineers and biologists together to construct biological machines from parts, such as genes, proteins, and signaling pathways. But synthetic biology faces a significant challenge. Even when scientists know how a particular component acts in nature, its behavior isn’t predictable when assembled into a network.
While it can take synthetic biologists a month or so to piece together a network, Collins says “it can take months if not a year or years to get the network to behave. You have to do an awful lot of tweaking to get your network to work the way you want.” That tweaking translates into many hours in the lab introducing genetic mutations to fine-tune imperfect parts, substituting alternative components into a system, or adding new features to counterbalance problems.
Collins realized that synthetic biologists needed off-the-shelf, plug-and-play biological parts that behave as expected when installed in networks. A large, well-characterized collection of parts would be extremely useful to researchers. Since small changes to one component can dramatically affect the behavior of the entire system, it’s important to know how each one works, Collins says.