Imagine a 3D printer that printed living organisms instead of an object made of plastic or metal. Imagine a tree growing a non-living material just as naturally as it pushes roots or spreads its branches. Sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, right? Cue synthetic biology.
In just the last few years, biologists, computer scientists and engineers have been working to harness biological sciences and the development of cells from the ground up. This is called synthetic biology, the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems, as well as the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.
On NPR’s Science Friday, Tim Lu, biological, electrical and computer engineer explained his research using biofilms (thin films of bacteria that stick to surfaces) and the reprogramming of biological organisms to actually grow nonliving materials inside of living materials and pattern them to make more materials with less environmental impact.
“We’re really inspired by what you see around you in the natural world – trees, bones… These are materials that are made by living cells that incorporate elements of nonliving materials. So we’d like to leverage the tools of synthetic biology to actually grow materials,” Lu said.
Community DIY synthetic biology shops are popping up all over the country, too. BioCurious, for example, is a laboratory space in Silicon Valley for scientists of every age and skill-level to come and explore the world of synthetic biology. Or at Real Vegan Cheese, a group of “biohackers” extract animal milk-protein DNA and add it into yeast to produce a non-animal milk and develop it into cheese.
Synthetic biology could one day serve us in medical, nutritional, industrial and hundreds of other ways.
A bachelor’s degree in biology from Assumption College provides undergraduate students with foundational coursework to work in a field like synthetic biology. Classes like genetics, microbiology, biotechnology in theory and practice, molecular and cellular biology – as well as research opportunities available to undergraduate students – can help a student who’s interested in making a career out of this new and growing field.