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Engineered Biology: Ensuring Quality and Predictability in Synthetic Biological Systems (+$7 million)

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image: ©Robert Rathe

Engineered or synthetic biology is an emerging field in which new biological systems are created or existing ones are altered to perform new functions. For example, microbes that produce chemicals they would not normally produce or that seek out and destroy cancerous tumors. The industry has enormous economic potential and is predicted to be worth $10.8 billion by 2016.

Synthetic biology is promising but not yet systematic. It often relies on expensive and inefficient trial-and-error efforts to optimize designs for each new application. Better measurements and a theoretical understanding of the control mechanisms of biological systems will make these engineering efforts less costly and more predictable.  

NIST currently invests about $1 million to address measurement challenges in synthetic biology, specifically in reducing the uncertainty of DNA sequencing. Working closely with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and academic and industrial collaborators, NIST has been active in mapping out future efforts with the synthetic biology community. 

Through a series of international symposia focused on synthetic biology, the community identified several major technical challenges that need to be overcome for synthetic biology to realize its full potential. These challenges may be overcome by creating standardized biological components, additional measurements and databases; establishing better understanding of the underlying scientific foundations for biological systems; developing new tools to test and control the interactions of synthesized biological materials; and building ways to enhance worldwide collaboration.

Proposed NIST Program

The president’s FY 2015 budget requests an increase of $7 million (for a total of $8 million) to ensure quality and predictability in the design of synthetic biological systems for efficient production of fuels, chemical feedstocks, pharmaceuticals and medical therapies.

Initiative-funded efforts will include the following:

  • Coordinate, develop and assess new measurement technologies for engineered biological systems, as well as benchmarking tools for existing techniques.
  • Develop robust design and testing tools for biological systems.
    • Based on established expertise in gene sequencing, NIST will develop and test standards for DNA modification and synthesis, including assessing the results of DNA modification on gene expression. NIST also will focus on robust, high-throughput methods for generating large volumes of validated data on gene expression for engineered biological systems.
  • Develop and deploy predictive models for biological systems.
    • Through collaborations, NIST will develop and critically evaluate theoretical models that allow prediction of a desired biological response, connecting DNA sequences to dynamic behaviors. NIST will work with the community to collate and evaluate data and predictive models and also to develop a shared resource of data, theoretical models, and a component repository to allow performance assessment of models.

Additional information

Much of NIST’s current research is done in the Material Measurement Laboratory’s Biosystems and Biomaterials Division.

NIST has several post-doctoral opportunities in synthetic biology.


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