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The emergence of synthetic biodesign. Marc Güell

Marc Güell, head of the Translational Synthetic Biology lab at the UPF Departament of Medicine and Life Sciences.



Article published on El Periódico, May 15 2023

As Steve Jobs already said “the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology”.  And indeed, we are not only able to read and write DNA, but AI helps us to start thinking in the language of life.

Life is an extremely special phenomenon that exists in the universe. It perpetuates order over time with a highly constrained chemical system "purposed" to perpetuate itself through replication, expanding this entropy-defying molecular machinery. All this complexity is encoded in DNA, which embodied in the right molecular framework will transfer the information necessary to perpetuate life. A beautiful chemical trap that has allowed for the possibility of the evolution of multiple living things with a number of fascinating properties.

Life has become to constitute the most sophisticated molecular machinery that exists. Animals made with the same essentials blocks like you and me, are capable to resist cosmic radiation or defy cancer. Nature has inspired modern times synthetic biologists, trying hard to leverage life to provide solutions to humanity's biggest humanity challenges, and artists and inventors such as Gaudí, Dalí or Leonardo da Vinci.

Biology is going through exponential times. Read and write technologies have been advancing at breathtaking pace, that has enabled us to understand and engineer life using its genuine language: DNA. Biological systems are being programmed with synthetic functions contributing to face the most important humanity challenges in health and planetary wellbeing. Synthetic biology will be key in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and it will be essential to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, enabling to genetically program the immune system to attack cancer or to teach microbes to ferment nylon or biofuels. Most of these advances have been generated by the creativity of scientists and technologists that have hacked biological systems achieved through refactoring, repurposing and recombining natural biological parts. In other words, all designs were not only inspired by nature, but composed by natural parts or relatively minor modifications of them.

Very recently, a great ally came to provide intelligence to this unique hardware. Very similarly as ChatGTP has understood human language and can produce synthetic sentences, AI is approaching a very remarkable understanding of life language and can predict protein structure, design and create synthetic proteins with advanced functionalities or specific structures. AI allows encapsulation of protein molecular complexity accumulated over the course of evolution but also to ‘hallucinate’ a sequence that does not exist, allowing for directed and “informed” evolution. Having something like ChatGTP that speaks ‘protein’ is transformative, it will be essential to start to design truly synthetic life components. 

The synergy between synthetic biology and AI will amplify our capacity to design biological systems and push us into a new wave of truly synthetic innovation in engineering life. Very exciting times lay ahead of us.



SDG - Sustainable Development Goals:

Els ODS a la UPF