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Science in the News: Making the Unnatural Natural: For a Sustainable Planet, We May Need to Embrace Synthetic Bioengineering

Science in the News: Making the Unnatural Natural: For a Sustainable Planet, We May Need to Embrace Synthetic Bioengineering

Today, it’s difficult to talk about the creation of previously nonexistent matter without triggering fear in many people. In particular, people’s general perception of biologically modified organisms strikes a chord that sings of unnaturalness. Many scientists and science communicators have taken up the call to dispel this fear that some describe as intuitive, working to get at the psychological tripwires that keep humans from being able not just to explore but to accept the benefits of bioengineering.

And the titles of many news items delivering descriptions of the newest feat in bioengineering don’t help. Using click-bait language, authors leave their audience primed to feel disturbed or disgusted by what they’re about to read. So, today, we’re looking at one of the newest advancements in the field of bioengineering and hopefully convincing you that, while the products of this advancement didn’t exist a decade ago, their potential for aiding humanity vastly outweighs the need to cling to (genetically programmed) fear.

The Field of Synthetic Biology: Using Existing Parts to Make New Things

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Despite sounding oxymoronic and therefore artificial, synthetic biology has had a hand in the creation of everyday products for some time—in fact, if you’ve driven a car with rubber tires or worn perfume, it’s possible that you’ve taken advantage of the benefits of synthetic biology. And if you plan to continue to use electronics in the future, keep your eye out for hyaline, a family of bio-sourced films that are clear and flexible and can support advances such as a foldable screen, longer battery life, or the development of electronics made from more sustainable material. As you can see, the likelihood that you make use of bioengineered products already is pretty good.

Synthetic biology makes use of core components of biology as we currently understand them to design and construct new components. These new components can be modeled and honed to meet specific criteria. Then, these smaller parts and devices can be assembled into larger integrated systems that solve specific problems.

The field had been limited in that new components could only be created using chemical reactions that already exist in nature. A collaboration between synthetic chemists and synthetic biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has now overcome that hurdle by engineering bacteria to produce a molecule that, until now, could only be synthesized in a laboratory.

How They Did It

To synthesize chemicals that had been difficult to make in the lab, John Hartwig of UC Berkeley created a new biological component called metalloenzymes by adding a metal catalyst (a substance that facilitates chemical reaction) to a natural enzyme. One of the goals of doing this is to use metalloenzymes to add cyclopropane—a ring of three carbon atoms—to other molecules. The result of this process is the creation of compounds that are useful in medicines, such as in a cure for hepatitis C.

Hartwig’s lab looked at the components of one such metalloenzyme and, by swapping the naturally occurring iron within the enzyme to another metal, iridium, the team created a new metalloenzyme that can successfully add cyclopropane to other organic molecules.

Hartwig teamed up with Berkeley Lab postdoctoral fellow Jing Huang and UC Berkeley professor Jay Keasling and with the help of UC Berkeley graduate student Brandon Bloomer to see if they could conduct this process inside living bacteria to give the bacteria the ability to produce cyclopropanated molecules on their own. Ultimately, the bacterial culture was able to grow the final product—a cyclopropanated limonene.

What’s the Significance of this Synthesis?

According to Aindrila Mukhopadhyay, a Berkeley Lab senior scientist, “Incorporating other metalloenzymes into bacteria could be a game changer” (Sanders, 2021). Currently, we derive many drugs from plants that are challenging to grow, and the cultivation of these plants can negatively impact the environment. Being able to reliably reproduce these compounds in the laboratory setting would make the entire process much more sustainable.

This applies to making “not just medicines, but . . . renewable plastics, biofuels, building materials [and] the whole gamut of things that we use today, from detergents to lubricants to paints to pigments to fabric,” Mukhopadhyay added. “Everything can be made biologically. But the challenge lies in developing sustainable renewable pathways to it. And so here, we’ve taken a pretty substantial step toward it, where we have been able to demonstrate an artificial chemistry within a cell, a living growing cultured cell, which is inherently then scalable” (Sanders, 2021).

In the Battle for a Sustainable Future (i.e., the Survival of Humankind), Intuition May Not Be on Our Side

This is a new, exciting example of how working with the individual parts of a chemical process can be leveraged in a different way and, paired with biology, invent an entirely new method of creating a pre-existing compound. Many articles discussing these findings use words such as “artificial” and “unnatural” to describe the organisms and enzymes involved in these new processes, but these terms are often interpreted in ways that ignore the fact that what is new is still made from previously existing components.

Keeping an open line of communication between the public and the scientific community should be the ultimate goal when encouraging acceptance of new strides in science, and disregarding the feelings of those who oppose particular advances as irrational will not accomplish this. For the sake of the life of our planet (and on it!), the possibilities of synthetic bioengineering are worth considering.

Innovating Science STEM Investigations: Biomaterials to Make Your Own Contact Lenses (Materials for 15 Groups)

Interested in having your students experiment with bioengineering in your classroom? Check out hBARSCI’s hands-on chemistry kit. The kit teaches students about biomaterials and how engineers develop and test them, giving them the tools they need to produce their own simulated contact lens. This kit contains enough material for 15 groups of students, and comes complete with a teacher's manual, student study guide copymasters, and safety data sheets.

For more information on bioengineering and how it benefits us each day, check out these articles:

Top 10 Bioengineering Trends for 2020 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers

National Human Genome Research Institute’s page on synthetic biology

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