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What The Heck Is Synbio?

Have no idea what “Synbio” means? Have no fear as Jasperine Phetchareun and Jessica Liana from MQ Synbio detail what it means and how it can change the world.


Have you ever thought, “What if we could stop coral bleaching?”, or, “What if we could make something to recycle all our plastics?”. Well, what if we tell you that we can - through synthetic biology. If the words “synthetic biology (SynBio)” have left you with feelings of extreme puzzlement and curiosity, that’s great! This makes it an even more exciting opportunity for us to share with you what synthetic biology is about!


Synthetic biology is a multidisciplinary science that combines ideas from biomolecular science, design and engineering. In this field of science we genetically redesign microorganisms, such as bacteria (e.g. E.coli) or yeasts, by deconstructing their complex biological systems into discrete parts that can then be re-assembled in novel systems to produce new functions. To achieve this, we view microorganisms as little factories that are given capabilities not usually found in their native state. An example of this is how the compound for anti-malaria drugs, artiminsin, that was originally found in wormwood plants can now be synthesised in yeast.


What many people don’t realise is that Macquarie University is one of the central places for synthetic biology in Australia - the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology (COESB) being located right on Wally’s Walk. There is a growing body of research in this area being conducted right along the pathway we all walk through on a day-to-day basis. Currently, exciting research is being done at COESB to synthetically build yeast chromosomes in the Yeast 2.0 project. It’s also the place where the MQ SynBio Team of 2022 is working on our exciting project for the Australasian Synbio Challenge 2022.


The Australasian SynBio Challenge requires student teams, supported by mentors in academia, to develop an original synthetic biology project designed and tackle real-world problems and encourage innovation. This is not a competition but rather a chance for students to take part in the process of collaboration and research that is involved in the field. The overarching promise of this challenge is to facilitate a growing and sustainable bioeconomy within the Australasian region for the near future. This challenge is currently happening across various universities across Australasia and will conclude in mid-October this year!


Our project is called Leucine in the Sky with Cas9 (points to you if you recognise the song name). It aims to make a very popular genome editing tool, CRISPR-Cas 9, more effective. CRISPR is short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats and Cas9 is an enzyme! CRISPR allows for precise genome editing in which molecular biologists can incorporate new DNA into an organism by cutting the organism’s DNA exactly where they intend to target, and inserting the new DNA into that cut site. However, there are some limitations to this technique, one main limitation being that this technology is heavily reliant on the natural repair processes of the organism, mainly homology-directed repair (HDR), of which not many organisms are effectively capable of this. Therefore, our project aims to increase HDR efficiency by incorporating a system created by Andrew Hao and colleagues from Adelaide University so that CRISPR can potentially be used in a broader range of organisms. [1]


This project excites us because it’s one of many potential applications of synthetic biology.


What’s interesting about this field is that it encourages us to think about alternative pathways to solve long-standing problems with the help of microorganisms as unconventional tools. It has the potential to alter the industrial production of resources and to encourage a more sustainable approach in agriculture, manufacturing and more. It’s hard to believe that many years ago it was incomprehensible to think that microorganisms could produce compounds such as artiminsin to cure malaria, or that we could even build synthetic yeast. Yet, we live in that time now, and there’s still so much potential to be discovered. It doesn’t mean that synthetic biology will be the panacea for all our ills. Yet, we believe that we could secure a more promising future for Australia if we simply asked ourselves, “How can we use microorganisms to change the world for the better?”. Now, that’s a question synthetic biologists can’t wait to answer!


Want to learn more about MQ Synbio? Visit their socials on Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok: @/mqsynbioteam


Explore these links to find out more: COESB: https://www.coesb.com.au/ Australasian SynBio Challenge: https://www. aussynbiochallenge.org/



[1] Hao, N., Shearwin, K.E. and Dodd, I.B., 2017. Programmable DNA looping using engineered bivalent dCas9 complexes. Nature communications, 8(1), pp.1-12.

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