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Synthetic biology

Probing the limits of the living world

Munich, 07/20/2012

Synthetic biology sets out to define the limits that separate living from non-living matter. Currently one of the most active research areas in the biosciences, it has found a home at LMU.

Many bacterial pathogens use chemical signaling to coordinate the infection process. Appropriately modified strains could act as jamming devices to prevent such intercellular communication.
Many bacterial pathogens use chemical signaling to coordinate the infection process. Appropriately modified strains could act as jamming devices to prevent such intercellular communication. (Foto: / images/ bacteriaSEM/ source/ 1; edited: thp)

Where does life begin or, more precisely, how can one define the border between living and non-living matter? There is no generally accepted answer to this central issue in the biosciences, but the practitioners of synthetic biology hope at least to clarify the issue. This very young research area has set itself the task of delineating the molecular features that characterize life, asking when and how a collection of simpler molecular entities becomes a functioning organism. The field’s long-term goal is the construction of a so-called minimal cell.

The synthesis of an artificial cell reduced the minimum degree of complexity compatible with biological function could open the way to the creation of living systems at will –for good or ill. One could envisage the assembly of synthetic organisms that would serve as inexhaustible sources of biofuels, specialized materials and drugs –or produce man-made pathogens capable of causing devastating epidemics. Synthetic biology is not yet a branch of engineering, but the implications of its potential impact are already being hotly debated.

A forum for interdisciplinarity
The problems that synthetic biology faces cannot be solved by insights from any single discipline.This is why the Research Focus on Synthetic Biology at LMU’s Center for Advanced Studies brings together representatives of various subject areas who work on a diverse range of projects. For example, one group of researchers uses computer-based simulations and other mathematical models to guide them through the tangled web of molecular interactions that are part and parcel of all biological cells.

Other approaches concentrate on the detailed molecular characterization of bacterial complexes, as a prelude to manipulating their components so that they reassemble to form suitably modified molecular machines.This strategy could lead to bacterial cells that are optimized for specific biotechnological processes.This type of study may also provide insights that facilitate the development of new ways to fight bacterial infections.

Jamming bacterial communication
Another research project is devoted to deciphering the basis for intercellular communication in bacterial biofilms, in particular those formed by Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera. Many microbes form such multicellular associations, which protect them from the actions of drugs.One obvious way to prevent biofilm formation would be to perturb the signaling networks that coordinate their self-assembly. Thus, appropriately modified cells could act as jamming devices to block communication within populations of pathogens.

The symposium which closes this CAS Research Focus will also furnish a prime example of interdisciplinary interaction. All biological systems, all aspects and all research priorities in synthetic biology will be represented at the gathering. The speakers include several leading international researchers, who come from highly diverse scientific backgrounds and will no doubt promote debate and discussion across disciplinary boundaries. This event is the largest conference on synthetic biology yet held in Germany – and one of the most internationally oriented to take place in Europe.

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