While researchers have been engineering biology for some 30 years now — developing plasmids and prescription enzymes — the design of new functions in cells to control how they produce proteins and behave is still, for the most part, uncharted territory. In an effort to build the ultimate synthetic biology Erector Set, bioengineers from Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley, are using seed money from the National Science Foundation to characterize thousands of control elements essential for engineering microbes.
The new effort, called BIOFAB: International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology, aims to create a resource in which thousands of free, standardized DNA components will be available to drastically cut the development time and costs of synthetic biology research for academic laboratories, as well as small biotech companies. Eventually, researchers will be able to mix and match the DNA components provided by BIOFAB to design new drugs or chemicals. BIOFAB's co-director Adam Arkin, a professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley and head of synthetic biology at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Physical Biosciences Division, says that he and fellow director, Drew Endy, an assistant professor at Stanford University, had originally devised the concept for BIOFAB more than 10 years ago, but only recently have the technology and resources become available to make it a reality. "We were thinking of ways to standardize how researchers make biological components, and how they could characterize them in such a way so that they may be able to interoperate to make our lives better," Arkin says. "BIOFAB was conceived as an entity that could [develop] these standardized parts and understand how they operate in order to make better predictions about combining components, and ultimately make biology more engineerable."
The two-year NSF grant will be supplemented with funding support from the LBNL and the BioBricks Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes synthetic biology. BIOFAB will also set about creating technical and professional standards using the BioBrick Public Agreement, a legal framework for genetic engineering technology. BIOFAB is also attempting to raise additional funds to hire 29 full-time staff members that will set about standardizing and characterizing genetic control elements in E. coli.