Synthetic biology approaches offer a way to quickly manufacture chemicals, drugs, and other materials, but as the tools needed to do so are improving, researchers still contend with unforeseen outcomes, Nature News writes.
"We'd all love to imagine a world where we could adapt biology to manufacture any product renewably, quickly, and on demand," Northwestern University's Michael Jewett tells Nature News.
There have been successes. For instance, Stanford University's Christina Smolke and her team have engineered yeast to produce hydrocodone and the Japanese biomaterials company has developed bacteria that make spider silk for making lightweight winter clothing.
But to take the field to the next level, researchers need to be able to create genetic circuits that they can then introduce into cells, including mammalian cells as well as ones better suited to the manufacturing process. "[M]aking and putting together genetic parts currently involves substantial guesswork and unpredictability," Nature News notes. "For the field to advance, academics and industrial players must agree on a toolbox of reliable genetic parts and the best strategies for assembling them."
There are efforts, it adds, to create standards for the design and documentation of synthetic biology parts as well as to develop a standardized vocabulary to describe them.
Still, Nature News says that even carefully designed systems can lead to unexpected outcomes that software modeling hasn't foreseen. That has led a number of institutes to establish biofoundries where robots on assembly lines can quickly test a higher volume of engineered microorganisms.
Even with such complexity, more and more researchers are entering the field, according to Nature News.
"I'm in this space because the frontiers are endless for what biology can do," Reshma Shetty, co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, says. "It's just a matter of the technology advancing to a point where those new horizons open up."