Synthetic biology has made it possible to engineer artificial components into living cells. The field is an intersection of molecular biology, computer science, and chemistry. The main goals of synthetic biology include learning how to build biologically viable cells from scratch, improve our understanding of the chemistry that makes life possible, and optimize our interactions with biological systems for maximum benefit to humanity.
Designer cells context
Scientists have spent decades trying to manufacture life. In 2016 they created a synthetic cell from scratch. Unfortunately, the cell had unpredictable growth patterns—making it extremely difficult to study. However, in 2021 scientists managed to pinpoint seven genes that lead to consistent cell growth—understanding these genes is vital for scientists to create synthetic cells.
Meanwhile, other scientific advances have made it possible to change existing cells to adopt “designer functions.” In essence, synthetic biology can make these cells gain novel qualities by altering protein synthesis mechanisms.
Protein synthesis is essential to cellular growth and modification. Symbiogenesis is the most accepted theory of how cells work today. The theory believes that when bacteria engulfed each other two billion years ago, the cells did not get digested. Instead, they formed a mutually beneficial relationship, forming the eukaryotic cell. The eukaryotic cell has complex protein-building machinery that can build any protein coded in the cell’s genetic material.
German scientists have inserted synthetic organelles that can modify the cell’s genetic material to code for entirely new proteins. That means the engineered cell can now produce novel proteins without any changes in its routine functions.
If research into synthetic cell manufacturing and modification continues to produce results, businesses might jump at the chance to commercialize designer cells. Such cells could potentially have desirable traits edited in, such as the ability to photosynthesize. The invention of designer cells could generate a whole new field with an exponentially increasing demand for control over our genetic makeup. Unfortunately, human cells are much more complicated than the bacterial cells that scientists have studied so far. Therefore, the widespread use of designer cells will likely only be approved for safe human use by the 2030s.
Applications of designer cells
Designer cells can revolutionize:
- The field of agriculture, allowing scientists to engineer pest-resistant crops or regulate the agricultural output.
- The wellness industry, making it possible to engineer human cells to become immune to the cosmetic effects of aging.
- The treatment of incurable diseases by training designer cells to produce missing proteins in diseases like cystic fibrosis.
- Healthcare by creating designer cells with increased immunity that can provide instant protection from several infectious diseases at a time.
Questions to comment on
- What additional applications can you think of for designer cells in different industries?
- Do you think there are applications of designer cells in the pursuit of immortality?