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Synthetic Biology: Miniaturisation for Automation

Synthetic biology holds much promise. Researchers have been working toward using techniques to create new valuable products such as novel therapeutics and drugs, biorenewable fuels, and new biochemicals and biomaterials. It requires a multidisciplinary effort – it calls for biologists, chemists, engineers, software developers (STEM disciplines) to collaborate on finding ways to understand how genetic parts work together, and then combine them to produce useful applications.

By creating and inserting multiple genes, we can start to produce different proteins that will be used to design or to uncover pathways in the cell such that it will be able to produce vast quantities of valuable products described above. This has been the promise of synthetic biology – i.e. to combine these genetic parts in the cell to produce valuable products.

However, challenges loom at every step in the process preventing the promise of synthetic biology to dramatically transform the fields of human health, energy production, and the environment. The main problem is that even if the function of the gene is known, the combined DNA parts may not work as expected when put together in the cell. This requires the synthetic biologist to be caught in the whirlwind of trial-and-error, returning back to beginning to redesign their genetic parts every time a failure is encountered – it took the Collins group at MIT three years to optimise a toggle switch in yeast.(1)

The reason for this inefficiency is too many biological variables. Combined with the lack of ‘automation’ tools, it has become difficult to scale-up for massive experiments, to streamline the construction and testing of these DNA sequences, and to ‘quickly’ learn from the failed experiments. Automation does not come cheap and it has been difficult for scientists and laboratories to adopt current automation technologies.

Microfluidics can be used to miniaturise laboratory processes onto the palm of your hand – i.e. lab-on-chip.(2) This technology comes with multiple advantages such as reducing costs and volumes, enabling access to precious samples, and allowing for the analysis of thousands of biological samples (high-throughput). In relation to synthetic biology, it has the possibility to integrate automation with the engineering workflow required for designing and testing organisms.

We believe with technology we can finally move towards bringing the promise of synthetic biology to fruition.

Steve Shih260

Steve Shih
 is an Assistant Professor at Concordia University in Canada. At the Synthetic Biology Strand of the 4Bio Summit, Steve will discuss designing miniaturised laboratories, automation and strain optimisation.

View the 4Bio Summit agenda.

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