Life 2.0: Engineering Biology for Sustainable DevelopmentAbstract:
The richness and versatility of biological systems make them ideally suited to solve some of the world’s most significant challenges, such as converting cheap, renewable resources into energy-rich molecules and valuable chemicals; producing high-quality, inexpensive drugs to fight disease; detecting and destroying chemical or biological agents; and remediating polluted sites. Over the years, significant strides have been made in engineering microorganisms to solve many of these problems. For example, microorganisms have been engineered to produce ethanol, bulk chemicals, and valuable drugs from inexpensive starting materials; to detect and degrade nerve agents as well as less toxic organic pollutants; and to accumulate metals and reduce radionuclides. However, these biological engineering challenges have long development times, in large part due to a lack of useful tools that would enable engineers to easily and predictably reprogram existing systems, let alone build new enzymes, signal transduction pathways, genetic circuits, and, eventually, whole cells. The ready availability of these tools would drastically alter the biotechnology industry, leading to less expensive pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, and biological solutions to problems that do not currently have sufficient monetary returns to justify the high cost of today’s biological research.
Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells or the redesign of existing biological systems. Synthetic biology builds on the advances in molecular, cell, and systems biology and seeks to transform biology in the same way that synthesis transformed chemistry and integrated circuit design transformed computing. The element that distinguishes synthetic biology from traditional molecular and cellular biology is the focus on the design and construction of core components (parts of enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, etc.) that can be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria, and the assembly of these smaller parts and devices into larger integrated systems that solve specific problems. Just as engineers now design integrated circuits based on the known physical properties of materials and then fabricate functioning circuits and entire processors (with relatively high reliability), synthetic biologists will soon design and build engineered biological systems. Unlike many other areas of engineering, biology is incredibly non-linear and less predictable, and there is less knowledge of the parts and how they interact. Hence, the overwhelming physical details of natural biology (gene sequences, protein properties, biological systems) must be organized and recast via a set of design rules that hide information and manage complexity, thereby enabling the engineering of many-component integrated biological systems. It is only when this is accomplished that designs of significant scale will be possible.
In this talk, I will describe some of the most recent developments in synthetic biology and problems that could be profoundly impacted through synthetic biology.
Jay D. Keasling is the Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the Founding Head of the Synthetic Biology Department in the Physical Biosciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute. He is considered one of the foremost authorities in synthetic biology, especially in the field of metabolic engineering. His research focuses on engineering microorganisms for environmentally friendly synthesis of small molecules or degradation of environmental contaminants. For example, Keasling’s laboratory has engineered bacteria and yeast to produce polymers, a precursor to the antimalarial drug artemisinin, advanced biofuels, and soil microorganisms to accumulate uranium and degrade nerve agents. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2006 Scientist of the Year Award from Discover Magazine, and a $42.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop and distribute the low-cost malaria treatment created in his lab. Dr. Keasling is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. He received his Bachelor's Degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and his Ph.D from the University of Michigan.