Synthetic biology ("SynBio" for short) is a new, emerging field of research that more and more scientists are becoming involved with worldwide. It dealts with the production of genes and proteins that, as synthetic products, can have custom-designed properties.
Synthetic biology promises to change our world in ways similar to what happened centuries ago with synthetic chemistry. As products of the chemical industry, like plastics, enrich our lives in many (often unconscious) ways, so too will the products of synthetic biology become aspects of everyday life in the coming centuries. What is clear today is that sooner or later synthetic biology will take over where classic genetic technology stops. There are many hopes for the field of SynBio, but how many of these hopes will be fulfilled is still unknown.
A sub-field of SynBio deals with the insertion of non-canon (or "synthetic") amino acids into proteins. The goal is to change the meaning of specific codes within DNA (that are the same for all life) so that synthetic amino acids instead of canon amino acids are inserted. Because the organism cannot produce these new amino acids on its own, one must provide them via the fermenter's culture medium. If the non-canon amino acids are in fact absorbed by the organism and used for the building of proteins so-called "synthetic protein molecules", ones that may even have some useful properties, are formed.
It is interesting that the same 20 amino acids are used in nature, of course in different combinations. Scientists, however, are aware of over 700 different amino acids. This comparison shows how much potential there is for researchers to create new proteins and
enzymes and, in turn, in synthetic biology.
17 students at HLFS Ursprung have the goal of producing a synthetic catalase. A catalase is an enzyme, or biocatalyst, that neutralizes hydrogen peroxide, which is dangerous for cells. At the students' request, the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich (MPI) offered its help and know-how. And to the surprise of the project team, and especially to that of the scientists at MPI, such a catalase was successfully produced in the school laboratory with the help of an auxotroph Bacillus-subtilis. (Auxotroph means that the bacteria cannot self-produce many essential amino acids and must receive them via a culture medium - our bacteria would not survive without the artificial culture medium.)
The mass spectrometer at the Max Planck Institute showed the inclusion of the foreign amino acid ethionine in at least seven locations in the protein's amino acid chain. This is the world's first synthetic catalase! What new properties this enzyme will exhibit have yet to be discovered. How active is this synthetic catalase? Under which environmental conditions does it work? How well can it be applied in industry? Is the anti-aging effect strengthened?
Our studies also showed Bacillius subtilis to be very suited for use in SynBio. This was until now "uncharted territory."
In the end, we are also interested in the ethical aspects of Synbio. We discovered that there is almost no governmental control in this field in Austria. In the face of the many risks that synthetic biology clearly brings with it in addition to all its possibilities, we saw a real need for clarification and study in this regard.
That is why, as a goal of this project we hope to incite a discussion of the wide range of topics within synthetic biology. The general public should also be adequately informed about this new technology to form its own opinion.
As a prelude to this larger discussion, we invited Dr. Markus Schmidt of the Organization for International Dialogue and Conflict Management (IDC) in Vienna and Dr. Nediljko Budisa from the Max Planck Institute - a "shooting star" in German synthetic biology - to the HLFS Ursprung. No critical questions were or go unanswered.
Dr. Markus Schmidt leads the EU project "Synbiosafe", which is to lead a Europe wide discussion about the ethics and security of synthetic biology. He was so excited by our school project that he offered us his help to raise awareness about the lack of adequate governmental controls and difficulty of risk-calculation in regards to synthetic biology.