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The fast dwindling fuel resources all over the world has forced man to ponder on the need to develop alternative fuels. This very positive step aims at both supplementing man's dependency on biofuels and also conserving the environment. With the rising demands for biofuels what better strategy than employing principles of Synthetic Biology. Synthetic Biology is the field that aims at synthesizing and designing new biological parts and systems or to modify existing ones or to carry out novel tasks (Berkeley, 2006; Brent, 2004). Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics Inc., rightly quoted "This is the step we have all been talking about We are moving from reading the genetic code to writing it."
Synthetic Biology has been described as the meeting point of two cultures namely 'deconstructing' and 'reconstructing' (De Lorenzo, 2006; Vriend et al., 2006). As the names suggest deconstructing is applied in understanding simplified biological systems which could be obtained from a larger system Similarly, Constructing refers to building systems that can mimic the real life systems. One of the major aspects of synthetic biology is its interdependence on other fields of science such as systems biology and bioinformatics. This renders a wider perspective into understanding various cellular functions and mechanisms such as gene regulation, cell to cell interactions, metabolic functions in living systems, etc. These methods are based on modulating the molecules using several technical methods even as a level of artificialness exists in these studies (Vriend et al., 2006).
Techniques Employed in Synthetic Biology
Synthetic biology is in turn dependant on various fields such as molecular biology. Some of the methods used are Computational modelling, DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis (raeng, 2009). Computational methods make up the first step in predicting system interactions. Advanced modelling approaches are used in analysing biological interactions which is followed by quantitative analysis of several biological parameters. An efficient modelling approach may help in formulation of a hypothesis as well (raeng, 2009). DNA sequencing is another approach that Synthetic Biology heavily relies on. This can help in sequencing genomes, verify if engineered sequences of DNA are fabricated correctly (Gibson et al, 2008) and identification of novel systems and organisms. Sequencing is followed by DNA synthesis which is used in synthesizing whole or parts of the genome. The final yield is then calculated. Large scale oligonucleotide synthesis involves immobilization of the DNA onto a impermeable solid support followed by employing standard DNA synthesizers, multi-channel synthesizers, photolithographic methods, ink-jet printing etc based on the requirements (raeng, 2009).
Applications of Synthetic Biology
Synthetic biology has a wide range of applications in several related fields. For example stem cells can be programmed to proliferate and then differentiate into specific cells of the body (Lai, 2004). Furthermore, bacteria can be engineered to monitor therapeutic agents in tumour cells which then act as live therapeutic agents or even used in 'bacterial photography' (Voigt, 2005). Programmed bacteria have specialised in-built cellular sensors and genetic circuits. Thereby, engineering microbes which aide in therapeutic functions has been a major breakthrough in this technology. Moreover, synthetic biology can also be employed in making use of plants or microbes as drug factories in overproduction of desired products (Vriend et al., 2006).
Recently, a team from University of Utah claimed to have been nearing on being able to synthetically build a mitochondrion by studying its functions (Shaw et al, 2009). Development of genetic circuits is another very significant application of synthetic biology. Genetic circuits of this nature can be used to program temporal-spatial patterns into cells, which are in turn used in designing biofilms and the growth of synthetic tissue (Ball, 2004).
Alternate designs of promoters are also possible using synthetic biology. It can also be used to improve metabolic pathways, mRNA switches & viruses (Voigt, 2005). Directed evolution is an efficient engineering method for biological systems (Arnold, 2006b).
Algal Feedstocks for Biofuel Production
Algae can help overcome the limitations in biofuel production such as lack of adequate feedstocks. Moreover, Algae can be grown on marginal lands with salt water and municipal waste water which is unsuitable for agriculture. Unlike crop plants their growth is non-seasonal, have greater energy density and about 30 times more productive. They also have the potential to recycle carbon dioxide from biomass-, coal- and gas-fired power plants (Anonymous, 2009).
Exxon Mobil's Venture
Houston-based Exxon Mobil in agreement with Synthetic Genomics Inc. went on to make their first huge investment on alternative energy exploiting the above advantages of algal feedstocks for biofuel production using principles of synthetic biology. The biotech company's cofounder and CEO Craig Venter explained that "one of the advances we've made at Synthetic Genomics is making cells that actually secrete the hydrocarbons into the solution, in a pure form, which potentially changes it from a farming process to a bioreactor program" (Sheridan, 2009).
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