Researchers Just Solved One of the Biggest Problems in Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is getting more modular.

11. 16. 16 by Jelor Gallego
Image by Pitris/Stockphoto

A Huge Wall

By applying engineering principles to biology, researchers can create biological systems that don’t exist naturally. A problem of synthetic biology, however, is that these engineered genetic circuits can interfere with each other. While beneficial on their own, some of these man-made circuits become useless when they come in contact with each other, and this bars them from being used to solve complex biological problems.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have found a way around this by creating a synthetic cell barrier to separate genetic circuits from each other, preventing interference while still allowing the circuits to communicate with each other when researchers want them to.

To isolate the genetic circuits, the researcher placed them in liposomes, synthetic cells that aren’t alive but have the tools needed to manufacture proteins. More importantly, they have a fatty membrane that acts as a wall between the different reactions occurring in each genetic circuit. This barrier also allows for communication between cells of different types of organisms, which the researchers demonstrated by creating a bacterial circuit that would transfer a protein to a mammalian circuit as a reaction to a certain drug.

“If you separate circuits into two different liposomes, you could have one tool doing one job in one liposome, and the same tool doing a different job in the other liposome,” the study’s lead author Daniel Martin-Alarcon says in a press release. “It expands the number of things that you can do with the same building blocks.”


Modular Genetics

This new research allows previously incompatible genetic circuits to work together. Like a modular smartphone, synthetic biologists can now mix and match engineered circuits that suit their needs without the worry of interference. This opens up the possibility of reexamining previous attempts at making complex genetic circuits, especially the ones that fell through after the circuits were found to conflict with one another.

In addition to illuminating a path forward for synthetic genetics, this new discovery could also provide insight into our past and the universe far beyond our planet. “This system can be used to model the behavior and properties of the earliest organisms on Earth, as well as help establish the physical boundaries of Earth-type life for the search of life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond,” says lead author Kate Adamala. The potential applications are truly unlimited.

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