Genetically engineered trees that provide fire-resistant lumber for homes. Modified organs that won’t be rejected. Synthetic microbes that monitor your gut to detect invading disease organisms and kill them before you get sick.
These are just some of the exciting advances likely to emerge from the 20-year-old field of engineering biology, or synthetic biology. Engineering biology/synthetic biology involves taking what we know about the genetics of plants and animals and then tweaking specific genes to make these organisms do new things.
The field is now mature enough to provide solutions to many societal problems, according to a roadmap released on June 19 by the Engineering Biology Research Consortium. This public-private partnership is partially funded by the National Science Foundation and centered at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB).
The roadmap is the consensus of more than 80 scientists and engineers from various disciplines, from more than 30 universities and a dozen companies. Among them is Pamela Peralta-Yahya, recently promoted to associate professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She was the technical theme lead for host and consortia engineering.
"The Engineering Biology Research Roadmap identifies the technological challenges to be addressed over the next 20 years to solve global societal challenges in various areas, from industrial and environmental biotechnology, to health and medicine, to food and agriculture, to energy, and beyond,” Peralta-Yahya says. “Addressing the technological challenges in gene, biomolecules, host and consortia engineering, and developing the necessary data analytics and modeling tools will allow us to realize the promise of a next-generation bioeconomy."
The report urges the federal government to invest in this area, not only to improve public health, food crops, and the environment, but also to fuel the economy and maintain the country’s leadership in synthetic biology.
“This field has the ability to be truly impactful for society, and we need to identify engineering biology as a national priority, organize around that national priority and take action based on it,” said Douglas Friedman in a UCB press release. He is one of the leaders of the roadmap project and executive director of the Engineering Biology Research Consortium.
Engineering biology research at Georgia Tech cuts across colleges, according to Peralta-Yahya. In the College of Sciences, Peralta-Yahya specializes in engineering biological systems for the production of chemicals and fuels. M.G. Finn, professor and chair in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, engineers virus-like particles for healthcare applications.
In the College of Engineering, Mark Styczynski, an associate professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, engineers point-of-care diagnostic tools for the developing world. His colleague Associate Professor Corey Wilson engineers gene regulatory elements for biotechnology applications.
“If you look back in history, scientists and engineers have learned how to routinely modify the physical world though physics and mechanical engineering, learned how to routinely modify the chemical world through chemistry and chemical engineering,” Friedman said. “The next thing to do is figure out how to utilize the biological world through modifications that can help people in a way that would otherwise not be possible. We are at the precipice of being able to do that with biology.”