Welcome to the era of synthetic biology
This is an exciting time to work in the area of molecular biology. Imagine being able to take a bacterial cell and redesign it. You could reduce its genome to include only those genes that are absolutely essential for its survival. You could add in or change pathways to decide which nutrients it can grow on. Now what if we could also engineer it to make chemical products beneficial for society? A cell becomes a microscopic industrial factory capable of converting waste materials into high value, extremely useful chemicals. Currently we are reliant on making chemicals from fossil fuels. These are a finite resource and the process has a huge environmental impact. This is why some industrial biotech companies are moving towards renewable and sustainable processes using fermentation.
Bacteria such as E. coli or yeast such as S. cerevisiae are ideal hosts for industrial biotechnology processes and have been used for decades to manufacture products like insulin or ethanol. However, one of the great things about working in the molecular sciences is the fact that we are always learning new things. From fairly minor discoveries that may have niche applications but are unlikely to set the world alight through to the very occasional breakthrough discoveries that fundamentally change the way in which we work. One such discovery is the gene editing tool, CRISPR/Cas9, which for the first time has enabled researchers to quickly and efficiently make genetic changes in a number of different cell types from bacteria to human.
But what does this mean for industrial biotechnology? A greater availability of sequenced genomes (from bacteria, yeast, plant) and improved ability to put DNA into bacterial cells, in conjunction with the CRISPR technology, means scientists now have a much wider range of potential host organisms at their fingertips. With a little bit of molecular jiggery pokery, these can become customised microscopic factories.
With this potential comes great responsibility
Engineering microbes in this way requires consideration – just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. These days it’s not just about the science, and many companies are committed to developing guidelines around responsible research and innovation. They want to ensure they can answer questions such as: why are we doing this? What problem are we trying to solve? What will be the impact if it goes wrong? How do stakeholders (e.g. consumers, investors, company employees etc.) view it? These can be difficult questions and require input not just from the scientist, but from many others as well. This is challenging the established way in which scientists work and communicate, as well as the groups they interact with.
Adapting and evolving - Scientists of the future
Routine analysis work can now be done by automation meaning the role of a bench scientist is expanding. Positions such as microbiologist, biochemist and molecular biologist are being joined by alternative options that interweave the classic STEM disciplines. Bioinformatics links IT and biology, while synthetic biology has a basis in molecular sciences and uses engineering, computing and mathematical principles to design and optimise, for example, new industrial microbes. Synthetic Biology degree courses at BSc and Masters level are becoming more common, and incorporate ethics training for their students. In this new era, it’s no longer the case of having to choose between the STEM subjects, there are ways in which you can combine multiple interests. This extends into social science (the study of society and individual behaviour) where social scientists can help us to answer some of the key ethical and social questions relating to our biotechnology activities.
With these developments in biotechnology, you can be involved in science in many different ways. You don’t have to be hands on in a lab, you could be the person writing software to help biologists interpret their results, or what about the journalist who communicates new findings to the public? You could be the outreach co-ordinator, coming up with fun new ways to promote science to young people, or you could be an entrepreneur making waves as one of the next generation of biotech companies. With a degree in a STEM subject all these options are open to you, and more.