Richard Kitney - Engineering life

To find out more about synthetic biology, and where it all started, I spoke to Professor Richard Kitney from Imperial College.
09 October 2015

Interview with 

Richard Kitney, Imperial College


Lego DNA


Kat - Synthetic biology may be a relatively new term, but there's growing excitement about its potential. In simple terms, it's all about engineering life - breaking down the DNA instructions that tell cells to make particular molecules into smaller component parts or modules that can be stuck together in entirely new ways, such as creating bacteria bearing novel enzymes that can eat up oil spills, or yeast cells that can produce lifesaving drugs. To find out more about synthetic biology, and where it all started, I spoke to Professor Richard Kitney, co-director of the Imperial College hub for synthetic biology.

Richard - Basically, the start of synthetic biology really occurred with the - a good point is with the initial sequencing of the human genome which was started around 2001. The reason for that is because in order to sequence the human genome, it was necessary to develop technology to be able to read DNA accurately and at that time, reasonably inexpensively. And so, the ability to read DNA led to the idea that maybe it might be possible to actually modify DNA to produce various things like changes in proteins or possibly, biological devices.

Kat - Because going back to the late '70s and early '80s, people were using basic genetic engineering techniques to do this kind of thing, what made it different with the advent of sequencing?

Richard - With the ability to accurately sequence DNA came the idea that it might be possible to engineer biology. And so, that then led to the concept of applying engineering principles and specifically, standardisation, modularisation. So, making things into modules and being able to accurately define the biology in terms what's called characterisation. So, that was another key difference.

Kat - What do we mean when we refer to taking this engineering, this modular approach, the kind of bits and bobs approach to biology?

Richard - When you put DNA into a cell, that's natural DNA, the cell responds in a particular way to produce defined proteins which lead through to things like skin cells for example. You can think of that as being the DNA that is as being the instruction set for the cell. So, it's almost like a computer program for the cell. If you modify the DNA, according to human design, you put it into the cell so this is now synthetic DNA - which by the way is produced chemically - then the cell responds by following essentially the computer program or instruction set from the DNA and produces something different, for example, oil or various kinds of biofuels so that's another example, or various kinds of healthcare products.

Kat - So, it's effectively just designing a biological recipe that can make anything you can imagine. If you can write it into DNA, a cell can make it. That sounds very simple. Does it always work that way?

Richard - Well, that's the basic concept. And then of course, you have to then optimise the process. So, optimising the process involves obviously a lot of science but particularly, what kind of cell are you going to use. Some cells are better than others for different applications.

Kat - And is it always bacterial cells or yeast cells or are there any human cells that you can stick these things into as well?

Richard - Well, the majority of the field still works on bacterial cells. In terms of mammalian cells, yes, there is a field of synthetic biology which is beginning to develop which is using mammalian cells for different applications.

Kat - What sort of applications is this kind of technology suitable for? What can you do with it?

Richard - Well, there are wide range applications. So, I think you have to go back to the basic strategy, and the basic strategy employed by ourselves and many other groups around the world is the idea that you can design and build what's called platform technology. So, this is technology which works across a wide range of applications. So, you don't actually need to modify the basic technology works for different applications. So the applications would be in areas such as healthcare for example, the development of biosensors of various kinds, the development of biological logic - so, this is the idea that you can develop the direct equivalent to electronic logic, electronic computing but in biology - various kinds of new materials, different ways for bioremediation. So, cleaning up oil spills, et cetera, using bacteria with have been programmed to eat oil. So, they are some examples.

Kat - You talked about platforms and technology. So, it's the idea that there's just a range like Lego bricks or component parts and someone says, "I want to do this. That means I need this, this and this," and we just glue them together, put them in a cell and here we go. It sounds incredibly powerful.

Richard - Yes. So, the basic idea is that you can take standard components which are well-defined. So, by a standard component, what I mean is a particular section of DNA which has been synthetically produced and human designed. But when you put that into a particular kind of cell, you will get a particular kind of response which is well-defined and that's called characterisation. All these bio parts are stored in something called a registry which is essentially a database and you decide on the basis of a particular design which particular standard components or bio parts you want to use to make that design work.

Kat - It's a very new way of looking at something that's kind of almost seen as the squishy science of life and treating it as an engineering problem.

Richard - Yes. Well I mean, many people in the field think about synthetic biology as being engineering biology and that is a very common term which is used for example in the United States in relation to synthetic biology. So, it's the application of engineering to the engineering and biology. That's essentially what synthetic biology is.

Kat - There's lots of potential applications for this kind of technology and you're obviously talking to a lot of researchers, and a lot of companies that are interested. Is there anything that you've seen that you've gone, "Wow! That's really, really clever!"?

Richard - Well, I think one of the really clever things frankly is, one of my colleagues has produced penicillin using yeast. I think that's pretty clever. There are also various researchers in the world that are now producing synthetic spider silk and that will lead to much stronger lighter materials. So, they're two important examples.

Kat - Richard Kitney, from Imperial College's synthetic biology hub.


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