How scientists are turning living cells into the tiny factories of the future.

Author:Lee, Sang Yup

Byline: Sang Yup Lee

Scientists today are harnessing this building power in the field of engineering biology to achieve bespoke biological functions for many different and new applications. The convergence of biological understanding, data science and the tools of molecular biology, combined with an ability to synthesize DNA to order, have enabled us to transform cells into "mini-factories" for the production of products useful to humans.

For example, silk from a spider's web is a material that has been optimized by spiders over millennia, as it is lightweight yet extremely strong, and fantastic at catching prey. Using knowledge of the genetic code, scientists can now instruct specialized microbes to make spider silk in quantities otherwise impossible. Such silk can now be manufactured into fabrics for adventure wear and into armoury for military defence.

The ability to exploit this amazing building capacity is now being accelerated by the new field of engineering biology, which applies engineering principles such as standardization, modularization and robustness to the genetic engineering of complex living systems for specific applications. New robotic workflows and technology platforms are being established, resulting in different types of laboratories focused solely on accelerating and prototyping biological designs for engineering-biology applications. Such facilities today are called biofoundries, and they are being rapidly established worldwide.

At the core of biofoundries is the Design-Build-Test-Learn (DBTL) cycle, which involves computational design of DNA genetic parts, physical assembly of designed DNA parts, prototyping and testing performance of designs in living cells followed by applying modelling and computational learning tools to inform the design process. Iterations of the DBTL cycle result in genetic designs that aim to fulfil the design specifications.

The infrastructure within current biofoundries varies, but is based primarily around high-throughput liquid-handling robots that allow millions of computer-controlled liquid manipulations, automating many of the processes needed to genetically engineer living systems. Coupled to this are also high-throughput biological measurement instruments that provide the data needed to inform the biodesign process. These biodesign and prototyping facilities are analogous to those developed for computers in the 1970s that led to the ICT revolution and as such are key to a future...

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