Bioeconomy

Synthetic biology: Revolution in biotechnology

Synthetic biology is a new rapidly developing field, which makes engineering biological systems significantly faster, cheaper and more predictable than is currently possible.

Synthetic biology

It is enabled by the possibility to synthesize large pieces of DNA in a test tube. These can be transferred to living cells and the cells will use this synthetic DNA code to express new properties, which are not present naturally in the organism.

In the near future, scientists will increasingly use the enormous biological and genomic information present in databases and design, using computer programs, new combinations of desired functionalities or even functions that do not exist in nature.

Large numbers of engineered cells can be built in an automated fashion using synthetic biology tools (e.g. the genome editing method CRISPR), and robots will be programmed to cultivate the cells and select the best ones for our needs.

New solutions for almost all industrial sectors

Synthetic biology is revolutionizing industrial biotechnology, the use of living cells or enzymes in industrial production. Gene technology was developed in the 1980’ies and enabled the production of human insulin with baker’s yeast, and efficient production of antibiotics and powerful industrial enzymes with moulds. The development work has until recently, however, been largely trial-and-error, making it time-consuming and costly. Through synthetic biology technologies microbial engineering will become precise and 10-fold faster by 2020.

Biotechnology – powered by synthetic biology – is a technology platform enabling solutions for almost any industrial sector, i.e. energy, chemical, forest, food, feed, pharma and IT. Using biological principles and the diverse chemistry of cells – biochemistry – almost any chemical can now in principle be produced using biotechnology, also those currently produced from fossil resources using petrochemistry.

Many chemical and energy companies are considering synthetic biology since it has the prospect of providing new products, less costly and more sustainable and energy-efficient processes. These largescale products can range from biofuels such as bioethanol and butanol to platform chemicals used in production of bioplastics such as organic acids for manufacture of PLA or biopolyesters.

Boosting the bio- and circular economy

A great benefit of synthetic biotechnology is that it is well-suited for the bio- and circular economy. Microbes can utilize organic waste fractions as raw materials, such as straw, wood chips and municipal waste, and turn them into the desired product once they have first been engineered to do so.

Furthermore, microbes can use just CO2 as a carbon source and light for energy, as plants do. The production processes are contained in large bioreactors and no organisms are released to nature. Synthetic biology has a paramount role in making microbial utilization of various renewable raw materials more efficient and can provide true breakthroughs and disruptive technologies in our transition from a fossil society towards a sustainable biobased one.

Nature is an excellent engineer. It provides unique functionalities for us to learn from and utilize. Unlike any other technology, biotechnology provides an intrinsic synthesis power which can be boosted by evolution technologies. Various material structures exist (such as cellulose, silk, nacre and natural polyesters) that can be produced by microbial cell factories, and these inspire us to develop new strong or conductive biomaterials. We can also learn from nature how to make light or energy.

Competitive edge for the needs of the industry

VTT is strongly involved in developing synthetic biology and is coordinating a large strategic opening project funded by Tekes called “Living Factories: Synthetic Biology for a Sustainable Bioeconomy”. The goal is to develop a synthetic biology tool and automation platform for rapid generation of cell factories, and this way lower the barrier for Finnish industry to adopt biotechnology.

We also develop microbes that can utilize C1 carbon sources (CO2, methanol, methane) or produce more efficiently useful higher-value chemicals. Our mission is to give the Finnish industry a competitive edge and provide a technology platform that can have a significant impact on diversifying the bioeconomy.

Further information: Merja Penttilä, merja.penttila@vtt.fi, +358407000163

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