BioBricks and Bioengineering: New Developments in Synthetic Biology

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What are BioBricks?

BioBricks are standard, interchangeable and open source biological parts that are used in synthetic biology to create or design new biological systems. The idea is to use precise engineering principles in synthetic biology.

Following the discovery of DNA, researchers have used biotechnology to manipulate biological systems. Biotechnology techniques, however, are not always highly reliable - you might make a whole lot of mistakes before you stumbled upon something that worked - and are definitely expensive.

In order to come up with a more reliable, organized and inexpensive way of doing things, researchers came up with biological engineering. Using biological engineering, researchers can create models on an exact mathematical basis, test these under different situations, build specific systems with these and get specific results.

To understand how this might work, think of a computer engineer assembling a computer using standardized computer parts and programming it for specific use, or an automobile engineer building certain car gadgets to carry out specific tasks. A synthetic biologist would similarly assemble a biological system for specific requirements by putting together specific standardized biological parts in living cells.

BioBrick Parts and the BioBrick Foundation

Each BioBrick part contains a DNA sequence with a specific encoded basic biological function. You can chain BioBrick parts together to form BioBrick devices that are able to accomplish certain defined functions. Many BioBrick devices together form systems that can accomplish well-defined tasks.

BioBricks can help researchers in fine-tuning nanotechnology applications, in cancer treatment research, in building new organs like new livers, in creating completely synthetic living organisms, in detecting certain proteins and much else.

The term BioBrick is an adjective and a trademark of the BioBrick Foundation. This is a non-profit, research organization that includes many high profile researchers from MIT, Harvard and UCSF.

Tom Knight, a scientist at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, introduced the concept of BioBricks in 2001 and created six BioBricks. Since then other researchers like Drew Endy, Gerald Jay Sussman, Christopher Voight, Linda Griffiths, Douglas Lauffenburger, Julie Norville and Angela Belcher have been involved in bioengineering projects. Drew Endy has compiled a growing database of BioBrick parts.

Promoting Synthetic Biology

To promote further research and development in synthetic biology, MIT has been hosting the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition since January 2003. This competition, under the direction of Randy Rettberg, encourages undergraduate students to carry out experiments in synthetic biology and create new biological systems. Participating students can get kits of BioBrick standard biological parts from iGEM’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts.