For the second part of our series, we had "3 Questions For" our academic sponsor Professor Roman Jerala who is head of the Laboratory of Biotechnology at the National Institute of Chemistry in Ljubljana and multiple winner of the Grand prize at iGEM competitions leading Slovenian teams. More information about Prof Jerala's research can be found on his lab website.
When and why did you enter synthetic biology ?
I only became aware of synthetic biology through the iGEM student competition, which is when we made our first steps in this direction in 2006. iGEM projects also led to our diversification into different field of synthetic biology while all the time maintaining an eye on health applications. Currently, we are trying to combine our interests in immunology with synthetic biology, which I think can be quite a powerful combination. The main attraction of synthetic biology for me is the opportunity to apply larger degree of creativity than just by exploring natural phenomena. Synthetic biology is also a very powerful investigational tool to explore different “what if” scenarios or to understand natural processes in the Feynmanian sense.
What do you see as the most important directions of synthetic biology ?
I am confident that the next technological revolution will have strong biological character as soon as the ability of rational bioengineering advances to the level we use in engineering and electronic circuit design. In the last half century, molecular biotechnology managed to harvest some of the potentials of cell factories, particularly for the production of increased amounts of natural or modified natural compounds. A major effort in synthetic biology is currently applied to microbial cell metabolism which supports the boom of metabolic engineering that is already being applied in the industry. Future efforts should in my opinion be directed towards exploring the potentials and pushing boundaries of the field rather than giving emphasis on the immediate application or compiling registries of existing natural parts. Those are clearly useful but will provide only incremental steps forward. Strong collaboration and interconnection between most creative scientific groups in the field is essential for the scientific leadership and for the opening of new horizons. I expect that the next generation synthetic biology will move strongly towards introduction of principles that have not evolved in the nature.
In which areas do see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology ?
In my opinion, synthetic biology has great potential in medicine, and some synbio solutions may reach clinical applications within the next decade. I believe that synthetic biology can enhance application of stem cells or offer an alternative to them. Rational design of biological systems may be able to avoid the seemingly unavoidable development of microbial resistance, for example by functional targeting essential microbial functions rather than specific microbial components. Targeting of cancer-associated processes may also be able to prevent the escape from the immune response. The potential of CRISPR/TALE technology is clearly game-changing for the implementation of synthetic biology in health applications. Processing information in biological systems will not be able to compete with electronic systems in terms of speed and reliability–but in terms of manufacturing cost, energy efficiency, sustainability, and complexity, biological systems offer a very attractive alternative. In next generation of synthetic biology, we should aim to design advanced information processing biological devices not simply following the electronic computer logic but building on the specific advantages of biological systems. We should aim to advance the design of information processing from the genetic regulatory circuits towards the protein and membrane potential-based designs, which should improve the time constants by several orders of magnitude or, to say it poetically, to function at the speed of thought. One of the important opportunities for synthetic biology certainly lies in harnessing biopolymers as the building blocks of new complex assembles, which can be produced by cell factories. Rationally designed bionanomaterials can have properties that have not evolved in the nature. Designed polypeptide-based modular nanostructures as demonstrated by our single chain designed polyhedron (Gradišar et al., NatChemBiol 2013) has so many potential directions of advances that it is difficult to select the main priorities.