Tag Archives: synthetic

A Startup That Builds Biological Parts

 In a warehouse building in Boston, wedged between a cruise-ship drydock and Au Bon Pain’s corporate headquarters, sits Ginkgo BioWorks, a new synthetic-biology startup that aims to make biological engineering easier than baking bread. Founded by five MIT scientists, the company offers to assemble biological parts–such as strings of specific genes–for industry and academic scientists.

“Think of it as rapid prototyping in biology–we make the part, test it, and then expand on it,” says Reshma Shetty, one of the company’s cofounders. “You can spend more time thinking about the design, rather than doing the grunt work of making DNA.” A very simple project, such as assembling two pieces of DNA, might cost $100, with prices increasing from there.

Synthetic biology is the quest to systematically design and build novel organisms that perform useful functions, such as producing chemicals, using genetic-engineering tools. The field is often considered the next step beyond metabolic engineering because it aims to completely overhaul existing systems to create new functionality rather than improve an existing process with a number of genetic tweaks.

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This is the stuff we need.

Why bother repairing our failing tissues for decades on end when you can just replace them with new ones?

From an engineering standpoint, this is just a plain and simple practical solution!

Biodegradable synthetic resin replaces vital body parts

Researchers at the University of Twente (UT) have developed a new type of resin that can be broken down by the body. This new resin makes it possible to replicate important body parts exactly and make them fit precisely.

The resin can be given different properties depending on where in the body it is to be used. Cells can be sown and cultured on these models, so that the tissues grown are, in fact, produced by the body itself. The new resin has been developed by Ferry Melchels and Prof. Dirk Grijpma of the UT’s Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials research group. An article on this breakthrough will be appearing in the authoritative specialist journal, Biomaterials.

Stereolithography is a technology with which three-dimensional objects can be made from a digital design. It is also possible to scan an object using a CT scanner (or micro-CT scanner) to obtain a digital image. The object in question can subsequently be copied extremely accurately with a stereolithograph. A stereolithograph is therefore a 3D replicating machine with a very high resolution. The way it works is based on the local hardening of a liquid resin with computer-driven light. The resins available for stereolithography so far harden into chemical networks that cannot be broken down.

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On the Quest for Synthetic Life, Scientists Build Their Own Cellular Protein Factory

In an important step towards creating synthetic life forms, genetics pioneer George Church has produced a man-made version of the part of the cell that turns out proteins, which carry out the business of life. “If you going to make synthetic life that is anything like current life … you have got to have this … biological machine,” Church told reporters in a telephone briefing. And it can have important industrial uses, especially for manufacturing drugs and proteins not found in nature [Reuters].

Church’s team built a functional ribosome from scratch, molecule by molecule. Ribosomes are molecular machines that read strands of RNA and translate the genetic code into proteins. They are exquisitely complex, and previous attempts to reconstitute a ribosome from its constituent parts – dozens of proteins along with several molecules of RNA – yielded poorly functional ribosomes, and even then succeeded only when researchers resorted to “strange conditions” that did not recapitulate the environment of a living cell, Church said [Nature blog]. Next, the researchers want to produce man-made ribosomes that can replicate themselves.

Church’s work hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal; instead he presented his preliminary results at a seminar of Harvard alumni over the weekend. He described how his research team first disassembled ribosomes from E. coli, a common lab bacterium, into its component molecules. They then used enzymes to put the various RNA and protein components back together. When put together in a test tube, these components spontaneously formed into functional ribosomes…. The researchers used the artificial ribosome to successfully produce the luciferase enzyme, a firefly protein that generates the bug’s glow [Technology Review].

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Harvard Scientists’ Discovery Opens Door to Synthetic Life

Harvard University scientists are a step closer to creating synthetic forms of life, part of a drive to design man-made organisms that may one day be used to help produce new fuels and create biotechnology drugs.

Researchers led by George Church, whose findings helped spur the U.S. human genome project in the 1980s, have copied the part of a living cell that makes proteins, the building blocks of life. The finding overcomes a major roadblock in making synthetic self-replicating organisms, Church said today in a lecture at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The technology can be used to program cells to make virtually any protein, even some that don’t exist in nature, the scientists said. That may allow production of helpful new drugs, chemicals and organisms, including living bacteria. It also opens the door to ethical concerns about creation of processes that may be uncontrollable by life’s natural defenses.

“It’s the key component to making synthetic life,” Church said yesterday in a telephone call with reporters. “We haven’t made synthetic life and it’s not our primary goal, but this is a huge milestone in that direction.”

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Cal Closer to Building “Organs from Scratch”

Synthetic biologists are getting closer to creating man-made organs made out of genetically engineered cells.

Two Cal chemists announced Tuesday they have assembled different types of genetically engineered cells into synthetic microtissues that can perform functions such as secreting and responding to hormones.

They said that means more complex biological capabilities, like the kinds done by a liver or a heart or a kidney, are not out of the question at some point soon.

“While the synthetic tissues today comprise only a handful of cells, they could eventually be scaled up to make artificial organs,” the university media office said in a statement. “Those could help scientists understand the interactions among cells in the body and might some day substitute for human organs.”

“People used to think of the cell as the fundamental unit. But the truth is that there are collections of cells that can do things that no individual cell could ever be programmed to do. We are trying to achieve the properties of organs now, though not yet organisms,” “This is like another level of hierarchical complexity for synthetic biology,” said coauthor Carolyn Bertozzi, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology. She is also the director of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“As synthetic biologists cram more and more genes into microbes to make genetically engineered organisms produce ever more complex drugs and chemicals, two University of California chemists have gone a step further,” the university media office said.

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Synthetic life form grows in Florida lab

When NASA began thinking about missions to look for life beyond Earth, it realized it had a problem: how to recognize life if it were found.

Scientists came up with a definition for life — a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution — but remained understandably fuzzy on the details.

It is still not known how life on Earth took hold, what happened to a bunch of chemicals that made them capable of supporting a metabolism, replicating and evolution. But a new field of science, called synthetic biology, is aiming to find out.

One of the most promising developments lies in a beaker of water inside a Florida laboratory. It’s an experiment called AEGIS — an acronym for Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System. Its creator, Steve Benner, says it is the first synthetic genetic system capable of Darwinian evolution.

AEGIS is not self-sustaining, at least not yet, and with 12 DNA building blocks — as opposed to the usual four — there’s little chance it will be confused with natural life. Still, Benner is encouraged by the results.

“It’s evolving. It’s doing what we designed it to do,” said Benner, a biochemist with the Gainesville, Fla.-based Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution.

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Scientists expect to create life in next 10 years

Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to create life from scratch and they’re getting closer.

Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of “wet artificial life.”

“It’s going to be a big deal and everybody’s going to know about it,” said Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife of Venice, Italy, one of those in the race. “We’re talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways — in fact, in ways that are impossible to predict.”

That first cell of synthetic life — made from the basic chemicals in DNA — may not seem like much to non-scientists. For one thing, you’ll have to look in a microscope to see it.

“Creating protocells has the potential to shed new life on our place in the universe,” Bedau said. “This will remove one of the few fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role.”

And several scientists believe man-made life forms will one day offer the potential for solving a variety of problems, from fighting diseases to locking up greenhouse gases to eating toxic waste.

Bedau figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic life:

  • A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out, allow good ones, and the ability to multiply.
  • A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.
  • A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as food and then changes it into energy.

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Woolly mammoth task: Critter’s DNA mapped

WASHINGTON – Scientists for the first time have unraveled much of the genetic code of an extinct animal, the ice age’s woolly mammoth, and with it they are thawing Jurassic Park dreams.

Their groundbreaking achievement has them contemplating a once unimaginable future when certain prehistoric species might one day be resurrected.

“It could be done. The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?” asked Stephan Schuster, the Penn State University biochemistry professor and co-author of the new research. “I would be surprised to see if it would take more than 10 or 20 years to do it.”

The million-dollar project is a first rough draft, detailing the more than 3 billion DNA building blocks of the mammoth, according to the study published in Thursday’s journal Nature. It’s about 80 percent finished. But that’s enough to give scientists new clues on the timing of evolution and the deadly intricacies of extinction.

The project relied on mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost, instead of bone, giving biologists a new method to dig into ancient DNA. Think of it as CSI Siberia, said Schuster. That different technique — along with soaring improvements in genome sequencing and the still embryonic field of synthetic biology — are inspiring scientists to envision a science-fiction-like future.

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Return of the Solar Power Tower

Last week Spectrum Online ran my profile of Andasol 1, a solar thermal power plant that’s set to startup in Andalucia with the largest installation built expressly for storing renewable energy: a set of molten salt storage tanks that will hold enough heat energy to run its 50 MW steam turbine for 7.5 hours after dark. This week brought decisive evidence that another solar thermal design that makes even better use of energy storage — a so-called ‘power tower’ whereby sunlight is focused on a central tower — will also have its moment in the Andalucian sun.

The project, dubbed Gemasolar, will employ sun-tracking mirrors covering an area equal to 40 soccer fields to focus light at the top of a roughly 120-meter-high tower. There the sunlight will heat a solar receiver full of molten salt. In contrast, Andasol 1 (like most of the solar thermal plants under construction in the U.S., Spain, North Africa and the Gulf) uses thousands of square meters of trough-shaped mirrors to focus light on a synthetic oil; energy is stored via heat exchangers that transfer the synthetic oil’s heat to a molten salt.

One advantage of the power tower is thus obvious: heating salt directly eliminates the need for heat exchangers, reducing installation and operating costs. Another lies in the fortuitous thermodynamics of heating molten salts, whose maximum safe temperature of 565 C is about 165 C higher than the synthetic oil’s.

Sandia National Lab researchers verified these power tower advantages in the second half of the 90s, but also suffered through a series of operational difficulties. Five years ago the European Commission provided funding for the Gemasolar project (then known as the Solar Tres) to demonstrate that the difficulties could be overcome, but the project foundered on legal issues and changes in Spain’s renewable energy law. But engineering continued and this March the project sprung back to life when its lead proponent, Spanish engineering firm Sener, clinched a solar thermal joint venture with Abu Dabi’s alternative energy program.

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Curing Cancer With Mother Nature’s Ingredients

If we are to believe these two articles, cancer cures needn’t always come from synthetic drugs produced in science labs.

Black raspberries slow cancer by altering hundreds of genes

New research strongly suggests that a mix of preventative agents, such as those found in concentrated black raspberries, may more effectively inhibit cancer development than single agents aimed at shutting down a particular gene.

Researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center examined the effect of freeze-dried black raspberries on genes altered by a chemical carcinogen in an animal model of esophageal cancer.

The carcinogen affected the activity of some 2,200 genes in the animals’ esophagus in only one week, but 460 of those genes were restored to normal activity in animals that consumed freeze-dried black raspberry powder as part of their diet during the exposure.

A very promising naturally found drug that cures cancer

Could a substance from the jasmine flower hold the key to an effective new therapy to treat cancer? Prof. Eliezer Flescher of The Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University thinks so. He and his colleagues have developed an anti-cancer drug based on a decade of research into the commercial applications of the compound Jasmonate, a synthetic compound derived from the flower itself. Prof. Flescher began to research the compound about a decade ago, and with his recent development of the drug, his studies have now begun to bear meaningful fruit. “Acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) is based on a plant stress hormone,” says Prof. Flescher. “I asked myself, ‘Could there be other plant stress hormones that have clinical efficacy?’ While various studies have suggested that aspirin can prevent cancer, especially colon cancer, I realized that there could be a chance to find a potent plant hormone that could fight cancer even better. I pinpointed jasmonate.”