Friday, 25 May 2012

Genetic Lego

Michael Knowles (2011), Flickr.
By Peter Fardoulys

Does genetic engineering have to be complicated? Is every biological situation unique, and therefore costly to research and technically difficult to manipulate? In response to these questions, a group of American research scientists set out to create a set of standard and reliable synthetic biology production techniques. Today we see the result of their work in what can only be described as the genetic equivalent of Lego. “Biobricks,” as they are affectionately known, are standardized genetic “parts” and “devices” that are used to synthesize simple biological systems. To date, several thousand Biobrick parts from all over the world have been designed with (and added to) the online “Registry of Standard Biological Parts”. The Registry exemplifies the spirit in which the project was born: it is an open source repository of genetic parts and devices, created with the intention of making this type of engineering more accessible to the international synthetic biology community.

Each standard biological part is stored and propagated in the common bacterium E. Coli. The “part” itself is a section of the bacteria’s genome (the cell’s “Master Code”) that contains a special regulatory sequence that gives the gene its signature ability to be interchanged with other sequences (in a similar manner to building with Lego blocks), and can be programmed to give the cell a custom designed function. These capabilities present some great scientific and commercial oportunities, and have already gained traction in the scientific community. For example, each year hundreds of university students gather worldwide to design and develop their own Biobrick systems as part of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM). Winning ideas include a cell that can detect pollutant levels in water, one that can efficiently produce biofuels for cars, and one that can target and kill drug resistant bacteria.

 A single engineering standard offers some interesting advantages over the usual ad hoc molecular cloning approaches, including the remarkable ability to interchange parts, outsource and automate production, and rely to a great extent on genetic components that have already been created. “Two engineers in different parts of the world who have never interacted can each design a part that conforms to the BioBrick assembly standard, and those two parts will be physically composable via the standard,” said Tom Knight (MIT), co-creator of the idea. Though this project is only in its infancy it has already shown great promise for the future, rapidly produced some novel and interesting science, and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.


[1] OpenWetWare, Synthetic Biology FAQ’s (2003), <>

[2] Knight, T., Massachusetts Institute of Technology  AI Laboratory, Idempotent Vector Design for Standard Assembly of Biobricks (2003), pg 2. < >

[3]MicroCon, Current research on Escheria Coli at the Norwich Research Park (2012) < >

[4] Knight, T., Endy, D, Journl OF Biological Engineering, Engineering Biobrick vectors from Biobrick Parts (2008). < >

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