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Biology by design part three – how synthetic biology could revolutionise everything from medicines to energy

2 November 2012

In a series of articles we are highlighting the work of some of the leading synthetic biology researchers in the UK. Here we profile how synthetic biology could deliver benefits in the area of health.

Rapid diagnostics

The E. coli O157:H7 strain causes a serious infection, which can lead to acute kidney failure and death in up to 5% of cases. Worryingly, the number of outbreaks is on the rise. A critical stage in dealing with infection is in confirming which strain is causing the problem – current detection methods take between 12 and 14 hours.

Professor Tim Dafforn from the University of Birmingham is developing a rapid E. coli detection system using a novel spectroscopic technique called linear dichroism, which detects molecules when they line up in solution if you stir it – just like when you stir a bowl of spaghetti and the strands align around your fork.

He realised that the method could be used to detect long, thin nanoparticles formed from a filamentous virus called M13. M13 is a bacteriophage – a family of viruses that attack bacteria. Using synthetic biology, Dafforn has engineered M13 to 'stick' to chosen target molecules, in this case E.coli.

Just as meatballs disturb aligned spaghetti, bacteria stuck to the virus particles causes them to separate and tangle, a change which can be detected in under two minutes. Image: Professor Tim Dafforn

Just as meatballs disturb aligned spaghetti, bacteria stuck to the virus particles causes them to separate and tangle, a change which can be detected in under two minutes.
Image: Professor Tim Dafforn

And, just as meatballs disturb aligned spaghetti, bacteria stuck to the virus particles causes them to separate and tangle, a change which can be detected in under two minutes. The method also has potential to be used for many different bacteria simply by changing the target binding site. A spin-out company, Linear Diagnostics, has been set up by the team to develop the technology.

"This provides the basis for creating almost instantaneous diagnosis of what is causing an infection and what will be the best way to treat it," continues Dafforn. "However, a lot of work is still needed to turn it into a routine procedure that will be found in every doctor's surgery."

Prof. Dafforn is also working with Professor John Ward at University College London to create novel bio-compatible nanoscale devices from phage. They are using genetically engineered filamentous phage particles as scaffolds to chemically link organic molecules and metal ions into regular assemblies, which could have a wide range of industrial applications including the production of chiral molecules and fuel cells.

Hybrid antibiotics

Professor Chris Thomas, also from the University of Birmingham is studying antibiotic production by microorganisms in a bid to recreate these biosynthetic factories in the lab and build new hybrid antibiotics that are significantly more potent than currently available drugs.

Thomas's team has discovered how marine bacteria join together two antibiotics that they make independently to produce a potent chemical. This chemical can kill drug-resistant strains of MRSA. Interestingly they have also discovered how two antibiotics – individually ineffective against certain resistant strains of MRSA – can be joined together to produce a potent chemical that can combat some strains of the superbug.

Using synthetic biology, Thomas is working alongside chemists from the University of Bristol and pharmaceutical scientists in Japan to understand the modular steps involved in the assembly of antibiotic production. Once they understand the assembly line, which is quite complex, they can manipulate it.

"We're working on how to exploit this research to generate families of new hybrids that will be screened for novel antibiotic activity," explains Thomas. "The synthetic part is because we're creating the blueprint: we're reprogramming the genes so that they make a new factory. We're creating new pathways and assembly lines to make new molecules."

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is the science of designing, engineering and building useful new biological systems which have not existed before in nature.

Using our ever-increasing understanding of genetics and cell biology synthetic biologists are able to design complicated biological parts, systems and devices to act as sensors, tissues or to produce useful chemicals. These technologies could deliver advances in a wide range of fields including medicine, biofuels and renewable materials.

A synthetic biology approach offers incredible promise but also poses many ethical, legal and even existential questions for the scientific community, policymakers and for all of us to think about. Some of these questions were explored in a public dialogue carried out by BBSRC and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 2010.