Computer industry tool used to engineer synthetic life

By using computer tools, scientists have figured out a reliable way to engineer the next generation of biofuels, biodegradable plastics, and drugs. Enter a more sustainable future...
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

Now that computer assisted design tools have made their way into engineering biology, in the future we can expect microbes to be made in a similar way -- but to produce more sustainable products rather than computer chips.

Traditionally, computer assisted design (CAD) tools have helped the computer industry make transistors. Now, a similar method could help scientists produce the next generation of biofuels, biodegradable plastics, and drugs -- as well as other types of sustainable materials.

The famous professor Jaw Keasling at Berkeley is behind this CAD-assisted design. In a statement, Keasling said:

“Our work establishes a foundation for developing CAD platforms to engineer complex RNA-based control systems that can process cellular information and program the expression of very large numbers of genes. Perhaps even more importantly, we have provided a framework for studying RNA functions and demonstrated the potential of using biochemical and biophysical modeling to develop rigorous design-driven engineering strategies for biology.”

In this particular case, the CAD-tools were applied to engineering RNA. If synthetic biology is going to progress as many thought leaders such as J. Craig Venter have predicted, CAD-tools for the synthetic biology field better mature to a level of sophistication that already exists in other engineering disciplines.

No doubt, a major challenge will be to get the CAD-tools to be simple enough so non-experts can also use it. The idea is to get it accurate enough, so that metabolic pathways can be predicted as easily as a chemical engineer can change the design variables by changing a valve in the production plant, the Berkeley statement said.

And of course, the product has to be desirable. The trick will be to engineer microbes capable of digesting biomass -- and produce a product good enough to replace existing transportation fuels.

via Berkeley lab

Photo via Zosia Rostomian, Berkeley Lab

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