Where producing chemicals is concerned, living organisms, such as microbes and plants, have a number of important advantages over conventional chemical refineries. Not only can they often produce more complex chemical compounds, but they also use renewable feedstocks, such as sugars, carbon dioxide and sunlight rather than petroleum.
However, they have one major disadvantage: a chronic lack of flexibility. Whereas chemical refineries can be designed to produce a huge array of diverse chemical compounds, with natural organisms you get what you’re given. Our ability to engineer biology has always lagged far behind our ability to engineer chemistry.
But that is beginning to change. What started with the transfer of single genes between organisms has now progressed to the ability to insert and modify entire metabolic pathways and genetic control systems. This is resulting in the development of natural organisms able to produce complex chemicals that are entirely alien to them, and the rise of a totally new field known as synthetic biology.
‘The goal of synthetic biology is to turn biotechnology into industrialised biotechnology. We want to do for biotechnology what engineers have done for many other fields.’ So says Jay Keasling, professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, ceo of the US Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute and scientific adviser to two pioneering companies in the field of synthetic biology – Amyris and Genomatica.
‘We’re designing a biological system using knowledge of things like chemistry and biology, rather than just taking something that we know exists,’ explains Robert Edwards, professor of biological and biomedical science at Durham University, UK, and co-ordinator of one of the synthetic biology networks recently set up by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. ‘It’s really applying physical and chemical principles to the engineering of biological systems.’