Back in my first year of undergrad, I was trying to find a research project for the summer before I came across something called “iGEM,” which did something called “synthetic biology.” On a whim, I decided to drop by their information session, where I learned that they were recruiting for the upcoming year. So I decided to apply for the team.
Little did I realize what I had gotten myself into.
The International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition is the largest and most prestigious synthetic biology competition worldwide. Each year, teams of undergrads from around the world flock to Boston to present the results of their summer research to panels of judges.
The competition is massive. iGEM has grown every single year since it started as a tiny workshop at MIT in 2004. As of 2018, over 300 teams are registered to take part, meaning there will be over 5000 people in Boston in October. That’s a lot of synthetic biologists in one spot.
iGEM is not your traditional science conference (going so far as to call itself a “Jamboree” instead of a “conference” or “convention”). Sure there’s science, but there are also costumes, mascots, games, and dance parties. And there’s this vigour and energy in the air that I don’t see very often in other scientific conferences. It seems to only come from a large number of young students yet to be jaded by academia.
I owe a lot of my passion for biotech and my own personal growth to the iGEM competition. It’s where I gained tons of hands-on experience not only in wetlab skills but also in design and marketing. It’s one of the reasons why I try to go back as a judge every year now.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was working on cutting-edge biotech–almost nobody I talked to knew what synthetic biology was. But I want to change that, because synthetic biology (and biotech as a whole) can be a huge contributor to our economy. That is, if we give it a chance.
What is Synthetic Biology, Though?
When I went into that iGEM information session in undergrad, the only thing I knew about it was that it had something to do with “programming” and “biology.” Great, I thought, something for a bioinformatics student to do.
But synthetic biology isn’t just programming for biology; it’s actually programming biology itself. As Nature Magazine defines it:
Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.
We typically associate biology as messy and squishy and complex. But synthetic biology treats it like how engineers treat electrical circuits or machines. Synthetic biologists can design and build completely new biological systems that didn’t exist in nature before.
But before we get too far into that, let’s review some vocabulary:
- DNA is like source code. It is a long string of chemicals called nucleotides that encodes all the information and instructions for an organism. DNA is represented as strings of the nucleotides “A”, “T”, “C”, and “G,” like how “0” and “1” represent bits in digital computing.
- RNA is like DNA, but it is single-stranded and a bit different chemically. Because of its chemical nature, it’s less stable than DNA so it’s not used for permanent data storage. RNA is, however, useful for transferring information between different parts of a cell, as well as a few other functions.
- Proteins are physical machinery in a cell, made up of complex chains of chemicals called amino acids. These chains fold up based on the chemical properties of the amino acids–into sheets, spirals, and beyond. The particular shape of the protein dictates what it does. And proteins do almost everything in a cell: they shape stuff, move stuff, hold stuff, cut stuff, stick stuff together, attack stuff, protect stuff, and everything else in between.
- The central dogma of molecular biology is that genetic information flows in one particular direction. DNA is transcribed into RNA, which carries the information to specialized machinery called ribosomes. Ribosomes translate the RNA into corresponding proteins based on the RNA’s sequence. So this means that different sequences of DNA represent different proteins that get “expressed.”
Different pieces of DNA do different things. Only some DNA sequences end up as proteins. Other sequences act like switches that turn transcription on or off. Others act like landing pads for ribosomes and tell them where to start translating proteins.
So what I can do is make a biological system with a switch that detects sugar, then hook it up to a gene that produces, say, green fluorescent protein (GFP). If we then put this into a bacterium (like E. coli, which is well-studied), we can make it turn green when it senses that sugar. Or I can swap out the sugar-sensitive switch with an arsenic-sensitive switch. This would create a biosensor that turns green when the cells are exposed to toxins.
We can treat DNA as modular, standardized “parts” with distinct characteristics that we can reassemble as we want. This is the basis behind the BioBricks standard, where we can connect modular DNA parts using standardized protocols. This gives us the flexibility to assemble any biological system we want (though how well this system will work is a different story). BioBricks also gave birth to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a catalogue of DNA for researchers to add to or order from. iGEM teams need to contribute new parts and new data about those parts to the Registry for the competition.
Synthetic biology overlaps a lot with genetic engineering. Traditional genetic engineering focuses on modifying existing DNA to change some property of an organism. Synthetic biology takes it one step further. It takes what we know about existing biology, and uses the principles of standardization and rational design to build something completely new. It doesn’t just use genetic engineering, it brings in automation and data science to do it better.
So Why Should We Care?
You may have heard of Moore’s Law: “The number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.” This means computing power generally doubles every two years. Look no further than the little supercomputer in your pocket to see it in action.
What I find fascinating is that since 2007, the cost of genome sequencing has decreased faster than Moore’s Law would predict.
For example, the Human Genome Project took 13 years and approximately $2.7 billion dollars to complete. Now, about 15 years later, companies are able to sequence the human genome for a little over $1500. This means that the cost of studying biology is more affordable than ever.
The cost of building genetic systems has plummeted, as well. New DNA assembly techniques are coming out every year. Companies can now make custom DNA on demand (after rigorously screening against known dangerous sequences). This means we also have the capacity to design, build, and test new biological systems faster than ever.
The power to read and write biology like software has huge implications for how we develop new medicines, food, sensors, and materials. Synthetic biology streamlines the biotech R&D pipeline by orders of magnitude. For example, back in 2013, a California company known as Synthetic Genomics synthesized a vaccine for a new strain of avian flu in just 12 hours. Traditional methods would have taken months (if lucky) to isolate and incubate in eggs. This has enormous implications for R&D, which explains why Novartis jumped on that partnership pretty quick.
I chose synthetic biology as just one example of how biotech is changing everything. I haven’t even talked about cultured meat, precision medicine, digital health, diagnostics, medical devices, or 3D-printed organs yet. Those will likely be topics for another day.
Investors in the US are already seeing the potential in biotech and synthetic biology. According to CB Insights, over $4.1 billion dollars of equity funding have gone into synthetic biology companies since 2012. In 2016 alone, synthetic biology companies secured over $1.3B in investment across 46 deals. The largest of these deals include Moderna Therapeutics, who raised a $474M Series F in 2016.
Investors around the world are clamouring to get involved in biotech, because they know this will be the next revolution that will surge after digital technology. As our aging population will put a lot of pressure on our healthcare system in the next decade, and Canada needs to catch up in order to stay relevant.
But we don’t have to look far. There is a lot of hidden potential in our province already. Alberta has many amazing innovations in biotech and digital health that have gone underrepresented for a long time, and I think it’s time that we as the tech community start talking about them.
Enjoyed this read? I would love to hear your feedback! Let me know what you want to learn more about, and I will try to discuss it in future posts.