ABOVE: Applying engineering principles in biology ushered in an era of synthesis biology.  © istock.com, ktsimage

I distinctly remember the day I first learned about using plasmids to manipulate bacteria during my undergraduate studies in microbiology. The experiment was quite simple, but at the time, I was mesmerized by the ingenuity of using plasmids to confer antibiotic resistance to bacteria. One could then screen for the plasmid-bearing surviving microbes that formed colonies on an antibiotic-infused agar plate. 

Science can be fun, and at times funny. While often the rate of scientific progress feels gradual, if not glacial, on rare occasions, it appears to advance like an avalanche. One such moment for me occurred when I first attended a synthetic biology conference. Conceptually, scientists were still tinkering with microbes. But with improved technology at their disposal, synthetic biologists had moved on to elaborate tricks that enabled them to insert sophisticated genetic circuits and coax the production of complex materials from living systems.

The presentations were a testimony to the numerous applications that research in the field had spawned. Of the several industries that benefited from the rising star of this engineering-meets-biology area, the biomaterials industry took the lion’s share. Within a span of just a few years after idea conception, mycelium-produced platforms decorated conference venues, bacteria-spewed silk protein-derived garments adorned a mannequin, and yeast-brewed face creams offered younger looking skin. (For those curious about how synthetic biology inspired sustainable textiles and cosmetics, dive into the feature piece in this issue.) 

The hallmark of synthetic biology is pushing the boundaries of biology to create new systems; these extend beyond hollowing out microbes and filling them with new genetic instructions to do our bidding. Take for example the old-enzyme-new-tricks success story of enzymatic DNA synthesis described in detail in this issue’s methods piece. It enables synthesis of long oligonucleotides for use in gene therapies and other applications. 

The quietest yet perhaps the most impressive advance spurred by this field is supplementing the understanding of basic cellular biology. While some researchers are trying a bottom-up approach to test the minimum number of components required to build a self-dividing cell, others are flash freezing cells on chips to use them as biosensors on rehydration. This melting pot of ideas and knowledge from different disciplines has yielded impressive innovations, a prime example being biobots. In the foundations piece in this issue, read the origin story of xenobots created from frog cells by roboticists and stem cell biologists. 

Synthetic biology has come a long way, but expectations remain high. With the recent advancements in artificial intelligence tools that enable protein design, researchers hope to ride a new wave of innovations soon. We are in the era of genesis of new materials, where synthetic biology is turning into synthesis biology.