Synthetic toolbox: Synthetic biology

What is synthetic biology?

This page reproduces content from B. Wiltschi and A. Glieder, Synthetic Biology for Organic Syntheses, in Green and Sustainable Medicinal Chemistry: Methods, Tools and Strategies for the 21st Century Pharmaceutical Industry, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2016, ch. 14, pp. 165-179. It is copyright to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and is reproduced here with their express permission. If you wish to reproduce it elsewhere you must obtain similar permission from the RSC.

In synthetic biology, “chassis” cells –cells within which the desired metabolic pathways can be expressed– are considered living cells that possess a basic metabolic pathway to produce primary metabolites and are capable of essential chemical transformations such as the production of energy and co-factor regeneration.

The chassis can thus be furnished with a desired function such as the ability to produce a chosen chemical compound; whether the compound is natural or non-natural does not hold a bearing on the process as long as the genetic information for driving its synthesis is available or can be designed. The chassis is endowed with the appropriate genetic system that consists of devices (e.g. different DNA vectors), made of different parts (e.g. promoters, terminators, ribosome binding sites), Figure 1 below.[1]

The concept of a chassis cell and its genetic system given in Figure 1 is an overly simplified representation; even in the simplest unicellular life form, genetic and metabolic processes do not work independently but have complex interactions in the cellular environment.  However, the modular approach for the systematic assembly of a more complex genetic system from the well-defined essential parts is useful and essential for a systematic approach, as such powerful strategies that link the constituent parts together in an ordered, parallel or combinatorial manner have been developed.[2]

Figure 1: Parts, devices and systems - the make of a chassis cell (reproduced directly from Glieder,[1] with permission from the Royal Society of Chemistry)

  1. B. Wiltschi and A. Glieder, Synthetic Biology for Organic Syntheses, in Green and Sustainable Medicinal Chemistry: Methods, Tools and Strategies for the 21st Century Pharmaceutical Industry, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2016, ch. 14, pp. 165-179.
  2. B. M. Nestl, S. C. Hammer, B. A. Nebel and B. Hauer, New Generation of Biocatalysts for Organic Synthesis, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 2014, 53, 3070-3095.