Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics
7141 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Montréal, Quebec H4B 1R6
What is Synthetic Biology?
The term synthetic biology has gained increasing currency in recent years. While it means many things to many people, synthetic biology generally represents the convergence of multiple disciplines, including molecular biology, chemistry, engineering, and computer science. As such, it is geared towards building and engineering biological systems to perform functions that are beneficial to society. This can include producing medicines and treating diseases, remediating toxins and pollutants in the environment, or producing green fuels and clean energy. This is done by exploiting the versatility of biology, and can involve altering the genetic make-up of microorganisms in order to endow them with new metabolic capabilities, thus modifying the chemistry performed by the catalytic machinery within cells.
A popular view within the field of synthetic biology is to see the cell as a factory and the metabolic pathways within the cell as the machinery. In this view, proteins (e.g. metabolic enzymes, transporters, receptors, and transcription factors) constitute parts in this machinery that synthetic biologists can modify, assemble, and/or swap in order to build novel biological machines. Because a vast repertoire of different proteins are encoded in the genomes of countless organisms, Nature herself has already provided an impressive "parts catalogue" to synthetic biologists, thus permitting the design of biological machinery with “off-the-shelf” components. However, since the proteins assembled into such machinery may not have evolved together for the tasks synthetic biologists set them to, there is often a need to improve their performance.
Accordingly, proteins are often taken out of their natural context and modified in the lab, with the ultimate goal of using them in the chemical and biotechnological processes that underpin the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries.
Our lab's research program is focused on protein engineering within a synthetic biology context. Examples of our projects include engineering enzyme biocatalysts for the production of valuable bioactive molecules used in medicine, or biorenewable chemicals that serve as alternatives to petroleum products. We aim to achieve our goals by developing and applying high-throughput techniques for the identification and directed evolution of enzymes of many different classes.
How do you direct evolution?
Darwin first described evolution as a process depending on mutation and natural selection, and resulting in the accumulation of adaptations in species that enable them to survive the specific demands of their ever-changing environments. This process has given our planet life as we know it.
Humanity has had a long history harnessing this powerful evolutionary process, directing it in domesticated species through selective breeding and artificial selection to accumulate desirable traits in organisms, so it's not surprising that more sophisticated methods have emerged.
The advent of molecular biology as a discipline, along with recombinant DNA techniques, has allowed for "directed evolution" on a molecular level. Within the lab, proteins and other genetically encoded biomolecules can be evolved in conditions where mutation is induced, and where biochemical assays allow for the artificial selection of desired biological or chemical activity. Using laboratory microbes or in vitro test systems, the directed evolution of biomolecules can be incredibly fast, in contrast to the evolution of organisms in Nature.
[Figure adapted from C. Jäckel, P. Kast, and D. Hilvert (2008). Annu Rev Biophys 37:153-173]