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01 What are we even talking about?

So, what is synthetic biology? The short and rough way to put it is gene manipulation. That sounds rather scary and dystopian, but from the scientific point of view it is very cool. All forms of life from humans to plants and tiny microbes are navigated by genes. The genes that are in (almost, but let’s not stick to this) all of our cells, give the directions to act in a desired way to the cells. For example, the genes in the leaves of a plant have the directions for them to produce proteins that create energy molecules out of sunlight or the human muscle cells to produce proteins that can overlap to contract one’s bicep.


These genes are formed of a simple coding system of four acids that are called adenide (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). The four acids can pair up to form DNA. These four letters form “words” or genes that are read by the cell, which then produces the correct proteins by the instructions of the gene. When all words are put together to form a book, we get the genome of an organism. Yet, the words can change by accident, which is called a mutation. These mutations are quite natural and happen in each of us. They can happen by chance or as a result of an DNA altering incidence, for example sunlight. 


Although these natural mutations may be harmful and, as many of us know, cause cancer, they might also be extremely beneficial and create new qualities to species. Without mutations, there is no evolution. However, natural evolution is incredibly slow and the mutations are random. To speed up this process, humans have created new qualities for many species, usually plants, by exposing them to radiation that create mutations and hence different features to these plants. By selecting those individuals that hold a desidered quality, novel populations are created. Creating these random mutations is legal and widely used in agriculture around the world. 


With new technologies, these mutations can be created selectively, which is more efficient and cost effective. We can for example change a specific acid in the gene, delete a gene, or add completely new genes to an organism. These technologies enable us to use biological species or their components to create new functions – by altering the words in the book, we can create new stories. 


The technology is already used. For instance, nowadays the insulin that is used to treat diabetes is produced in yeast or bacteria cells. These cells have been genetically altered to produce the human protein. Before this, the insulin humans used was secreted from the pancreata of pigs. 150 - 200 million people use this essential molecule produced by the means of synthetic biology daily!


Another everyday example of synthetic biology solutions is egg white that is produced in a fungal cell by Onego Bio Oy. They produce the same egg white proteins that are found in eggs but in a tank with fungi. This saves plenty of resources and is certainly cruelty free. More and more of similar products are entering the market as the final product is not genetically modified - as it is 100% similar to the original product - only it is produced by a genetically modified host organism.


Finally, the covid-19 vaccinations were created by using the means of synthetic biology. Again, the final product is not a GMO, as it is not a living organism, the proteins that are used to produce the mRNA are produced in GMOs.


Synthetic biology is not just research on life sciences but also engineering. Along with gene editing, synthetic biology emphasizes the use of engineering principles and systematic approach to redesigning organisms. The engineering principles are utilized to create optimal solutions and improve the product systematically like in any product development process.


In the future, as the technologies develop and the methods are more commonly understood, many new implementations of synthetic biology are created. We could produce fuels out of sunlight and carbon dioxide with the help of microalgae, create plants that are more resistant to drought, or develop a HIV vaccination. The future is ours, but we need the support of the common to create these sustainable solutions. 


Sara Makkonen

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