"If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own," said Wes "Scoop" Nisker. Taking a page from the book of San Francisco radio legend Scoop Nisker, biologists who find themselves dissatisfied with the microbes nature has provided are going out and making some of their own. Members of the fast-growing "synthetic biology" research community are designing and constructing novel organisms and biologically-inspired systems -- or redesigning existing organisms and systems -- to solve problems that natural systems cannot. The range of potential applications for synthetic biological systems runs broad and deep, and includes such profoundly important ventures as the microbial-based production of advanced biofuels and inexpensive versions of critical therapeutic drugs.
Synthetic biology, however, is still a relatively new scientific field plagued with the trial and error inefficiencies that hamper most technologies in their early stages of development. To help address these problems, synthetic biologists aim to create biological circuits that can be used for the safer and more efficient construction of increasingly complex functions in microorganisms. A central component of such circuits is RNA, the multipurpose workhorse molecule of biology.
"A widespread natural ability to sense small molecules and regulate genes has made the RNA molecule an important tool for synthetic biology in applications as diverse as environmental sensing and metabolic engineering," says Adam Arkin, a computational biologist with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), where he serves as director of the Physical Biosciences Division. Arkin is also a professor at the University of California (UC) Berkeley where he directs the Synthetic Biology Institute, a partnership between UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab.