Synthetic Biology and Biofuels

In Paul B. Thompson & David M. Kaplan (eds.), Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics. Springer (2014)
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Synthetic biology is a field of research that concentrates on the design, construction, and modification of new biomolecular parts and metabolic pathways using engineering techniques and computational models. By employing knowledge of operational pathways from engineering and mathematics such as circuits, oscillators, and digital logic gates, it uses these to understand, model, rewire, and reprogram biological networks and modules. Standard biological parts with known functions are catalogued in a number of registries (e.g. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Registry of Standard Biological Parts). Biological parts can then be selected from the catalogue and assembled in a variety of combinations to construct a system or pathway in a microbe. Through the innovative re-engineering of biological circuits and the optimization of certain metabolic pathways, biological modules can be designed to reprogram organisms to produce products or behaviors. Synthetic biology is what is known as a “platform technology”. That is, it generates highly transferrable theoretical models, engineering principles, and know-how that can be applied to create potential products in a wide variety of industries. Proponents suggest that applications of synthetic biology may be able to provide scientific and engineered solutions to a multitude of worldwide problems from health to energy. Synthetic biology research has already been successful in constructing microbial products which promise to offer cheaper pharmaceuticals such as the antimalarial synthetic drug artemisinin, engineered microbes capable of cleaning up oil spills, and the engineering of biosensors that can detect the presence of high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water. One of the potential benefits of synthetic biology research is in its application to biofuel production. It is this application which is the focus of this entry. The term “biofuel” has referred generally to all liquid fuels that are sourced from plant or plant byproducts and are used for energy necessary for transportation vehicles (Thompson 2012). Biofuels that are produced using synthetic biological techniques re-engineer microbes into biofuel factories are a subset of these.
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