Special section: Synthetic Biology

Posted on July 9, 2013   by Benjamin Thompson

This month, the Society for General Microbiology’s journal Microbiology contains a special section dedicated to synthetic biology – a field that applies engineering principals, such as mathematical modelling or modularisation, to biological research. Although in its infancy, synthetic biology offers researchers the opportunity to understand how biological systems work by piecing them together from their constituent parts, and may allow scientists to design organisms that perform a bespoke function. Some early examples of these organisms already exist, with a team developing a strain of B. subtilis that can cheaply and safely detect arsenic in drinking water, a common contaminant of wells in South Asia.

The special section contains six articles from researchers across the world. Each article is free of charge and can be found at the links below.

The section’s editorial, ‘Synthetic Biology: Biology by design’, details the research in the articles, and looks at some of the societal and legal hurdles that the technology faces.

Tuning the Dials of Synthetic Biology’, by researchers at Imperial College and the University of Oxford, reviews the ways that different parts of a biological system can be modified, focusing on the ‘dials’ that are available and how they can be tuned to achieve a particular effect.

In ‘A single phosphatase can convert a robust step response into a graded, tuneable or adaptive response’, researchers from Taipei Medical University, Taiwan, and the University of Oxford discuss how the synthetic addition of a phosphatase can alter the action of two-component regulatory systems in a tuneable way.

Clostridium difficile is a major cause of hospital infections; the species produces two toxins, which are the main virulence factors responsible for disease. In ‘A novel approach to generate a recombinant toxoid vaccine against C. difficile’, a group of researchers describe a plasmid based system for producing genetically modified toxins, which may have important implications for vaccine development.

Geobacillus thermoglucosidasius is an extremophile bacteria, which can survive at high temperatures, growing best between 55 and 65° C. This species is being engineered for use in the bioethanol industry. In ‘Modular system for assessment of glycosyl hydrolase secretion in Geobacillus thermoglucosidasius’, researchers from the University of Bath report the construction of a system for optimising the secretion of proteins in G. thermoglucosidasius

Building-in Biosafety for Synthetic Biology’, a review from researchers at Imperial College London, investigates safety mechanisms that can be used to prevent engineered organisms from sharing their genetic material, or from escaping their intended environment. The authors of this review have been interviewed for a forthcoming edition of our Microbe Talk podcast.