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Synthetic biology news from the lab bench #2

From molecular thumb drives and living computers to CRISPR to eliminate HIV, it was another big week for synthetic biology research. Here’s the news you need to know:

Data storage

?DNA isn’t the only molecule we could use for digital storage. It turns out that solutions containing sugars, amino acids, and other small molecules could replace hard drives too, according to the New Scientist. [Article]

Fuels and chemicals

?Check out this recent review that focuses on the potential of cyanobacteria and algae, photosynthetic microorganisms that are emerging as attractive hosts for synthetic biology applications, ranging from the production of industrial biochemicals to microbial energy storage.

?Converting biomass materials into valuable fuels and chemicals by microbes is a hot topic in bio-manufacturing. A problem hindering this process is the inefficient co-utilization of pentoses and hexoses. Now, scientists have developed a “Y-shaped” microbial consortium capable of simultaneously utilizing biomass sugars for efficient production of butanol. [Article]

?Scientists have manipulated simple ferredoxin proteins that shuttle electrons in cells. “Ferredoxins are biological capacitors that get charged as they accept electrons from one molecule and discharged as they deliver them to other molecules. A method to control how these molecular “alligator clips” function could have broad implications for synthetic biology. [Article]


?Researchers have “found a way to make artificial cells interact with a wide range of chemicals. They developed a riboswitch – a gene switch that senses chemical signals – that can respond to histamine, a chemical compound that is naturally produced in the body. In the presence of this chemical, the riboswitch turns on a gene inside the artificial cells. Such a system could one day be used as a new way of administering medicine.” [Article]

?Using CRISPR to eliminate HIV: Scientists demonstrated that a combination of CRISPR and a newly developed antiretroviral therapy successfully eliminated HIV DNA from infected mice. [Article]

??‍⚕️Scientists invent fast method for ‘directed evolution’ of molecules: “The technique, dubbed VEGAS, works in mammalian cells and can yield useful new molecules within days, providing scientists with a powerful new research tool and a potential route to better therapeutics for various diseases.” [Article]

?A bacterial cancer therapy: Researchers have engineered a strain of non-pathogenic bacteria that can colonize solid tumors in mice and safely deliver potent immunotherapies, acting as a Trojan Horse that treats tumors from within. [Article]

??‍?Minimizing side effects, maximizing returns: what makes a smart therapeutic design? Drugs have frequent, unintended and largely unpleasant side effects as a result of indiscriminate binding to both their desired targets and a multitude of other sites. How can synthetic biologists help?

?Using cells as novel delivery devices: In this article, researchers discuss the framework of how synthetic biologists reprogram cells and outline how cells can be engineered to function as new vehicles for delivering therapeutic proteins, sensing and responding to the changing physiological needs of the patient.

?“Plants, historically overlooked as efficient hosts for the engineered production of products other than foods, textiles and building materials, have increasingly been shown to be capable of efficient expression of both therapeutic proteins and small-molecule metabolites. There is significant interest and investment in the use of heterologous plant hosts as bioproduction systems,” according to researchers at Earlham Institute.


?New research on the biodegradation of plastics will be funded by an MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund. “Our goal is to engineer metabolic pathways into E. coli to allow the bacterium to grow on PET,” says Linda Zhong of MIT.

Bio-electrical engineering

?“What do the following have in common? The production of methane gas from farm waste; toilets at a music festival, lit with LED lights; a bacterial biofilm that is on the brink of starvation. All of these involve microbes that are making use of bio-electrical processes. By re-engineering natural systems, we can hope to improve our understanding of how their components function and repurpose them for exciting biotechnological applications,” according to Robert Bradley of Imperial College London.

Living computers

?“By moving from biocomputations constrained to work within a single cell to the coordination of many independent computational units (cells), calculations could be performed at scales that dwarf what is possible with electronic computers,” according to University of Bristol researchers. 

The CRISPR toolkit

?This review summarizes the key events in CRISPR/Cas system development, provides a glimpse of how this technology has transformed biological research, and explains how you can choose the right tool for your own research.

Public perception

?’High-tech’ framing may be driving negative attitudes towards cultured meat: “Worryingly, cultured meat as a ‘high-tech’ development has been a very dominant frame in early media coverage, which frequently features ‘science themed’ photos such as meat in a petri dish in a lab. This may be causing consumers to develop more negative attitudes towards cultured meat than they otherwise might,” the researchers write. [Article]

Check out last week’s research roundup and leave your comments below:


Marianna Limas

Marianna plays a critical role in displaying and communicating SynBioBeta’s message to the world. She manages SynBioBeta’s social media channels and newsletter, and works with the editorial, website, research and marketing teams.

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