Synthetic biology

Designer cells can be made to produce, for example, essential pharmaceuticals or biofuels


Synthetic biology is a discipline that involves cell modelling and the artificial synthesis of the hereditary material (DNA). In the field of synthetic biology, new life forms are artificially created or existing ones are reshaped by reprogramming cell behaviour and giving them new desired properties [1].


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There are many companies in the world that are engaged in synthetic biology. In Estonia, the Estonian Centre for Synthetic Biology has been established at the University of Tartu, where designed cells are created as cell factories for use in the production of biochemicals and pharmaceuticals [2].


Synthetic biology is very important in materials technology, environmental protection, medicine, and other fields. For example, there are attempts to create bacteria that have been programmed to kill cancer cells, designer cells (so-called cell factories) can already be made to produce essential pharmaceuticals or biofuels, and algae created with synthetic DNA are used to produce palm oil.


Experiments are currently underway, aiming to make meat production so industrial that no animals would be needed. Industry leaders compare the production of such ‘laboratory meat’ to brewing beer: just like cereals are fermented, animal cells could be grown in gigantic cell culture barrels [3]. This production method reduces the need for oil and minimises the pressure to cut down rainforests or use animals, e.g. in the production of vaccines and meat.


However, there are also potential threats regarding this technology: with the possibility of creating biological weapons, dangerous organisms, the ecological impact of the organisms obtained in this way cannot be fully predicted. There are also ethical issues, especially when it comes to reprogramming human cells.


The only international agreement in this field is the Convention on Biological Diversity [4]. In this context, discussions are ongoing on how and to what extent this field should be regulated – no country has specific laws governing this area. In most countries (including the Member States of the European Union), this field is indirectly regulated by legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as well as general rules for research and good laboratory practice.


As only organisms produced by certain technologies are considered GMOs, techniques may be used in synthetic biology that are not included in that list. To date, countries have not yet agreed on the exact definition of synthetic biology and whether and how the use of organisms derived from it should be regulated [5].



Last modified: 30.11.2021




[1] (eesti k)


[3] T, McMillan. National Geographic, 11/2018, lk 68-78.


[5] Vt nt Euroopa Komisjoni arvamus sünteetilise bioloogia kohta ja