The scientific knowledge base and understanding of biological materials has reached a critical stage, allowing for the development of exciting new fields of science and technology. Over the past decade, interdisciplinary research has created opportunities at the interface of biology and physics. As it started becoming evident that the principles of mechanical engineering can be applied to biology, the new field of “synthetic biology” emerged.
Synthetic biology investigates how to build artificial, biological machines using engineering principles and procedures by taking parts (molecular and sub-cellular) and principles of naturally occurring biological systems, characterising and simplifying them. These components can then be used to engineer essentially artificial (synthetic) biological materials, devices, machines and systems for application in medicine, energy, the environment and industry.
Working at the molecular scale represents a considerable challenge. Fortunately, nano-imaging and manipulation technologies for biological samples have progressed in the last decade and one can now image, characterise and manipulate biological molecules from the macro down to the nano-scale. Their behaviour can be predicted, quantified and utilised in ways not possible before. These advanced techniques make synthetic biology possible.
Raymond Sparrow was the Research Group Leader for Synthetic Biology at the Council of Science and Industrial Research in South Africa.