By Shruti Sridhar,
Have you ever thought that a living cell could be programmed and reprogrammed like a computer to perform specific tasks? Can we apply engineering principles like standardization, replicability, modelling, and modularisation to biological systems? The broad answer to the above questions is the ability of a field called Synthetic Biology (SynBio).
It is an interdisciplinary field of research that utilizes much of the same techniques and equipment as the biological sciences, integrated with engineering principles to design and construct new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells. We can also redesign and improve upon the genetic blueprints of existing organisms and biological systems. This allows researchers to modify cells to take on new, useful functions while removing any undesirable traits that may exist. A very basic example of its applications would be modifying an organism’s DNA to give it the ability to sense and break down a toxic compound in the environment. A trained synthetic biologist may look to manipulate organisms into bio-factories for the production of biofuels, the creation of new biological circuits, or to create proteins that can cure diseases.
Biotechnology is currently one of the fastest-growing industries in India with a massive boom in the past 5 years. But while a lot of biotech infrastructure and resources exist in the country and technological advances have allowed the cost of sequencing and DNA synthesis to drop, this was not directed towards Synthetic Biology. However, identifying the need to develop trained professionals in the field, educational institutes such as IISERs, IITs, BITS, IIScs, MITADT Pune, and others across India have now begun to encourage interested students to study the field theoretically and practically as part of their coursework in B. tech/B.Sc. degrees, postgraduate courses, and Ph.D. projects in Bioengineering, Biotechnology, and related fields.
Given the vast collaborative opportunities of SynBio with several disciplines such as engineering, computer science, and chemistry, several career opportunities can range from entrepreneurship, research, and manufacturing to SynBio education, bioethics, and policy development. For example, Biopharmaceutical companies such as Biocon Limited and GlaxoSmithKline have already begun identifying SynBio-based therapies to create novel medicines efficiently and affordably. Independent researchers, with an emphasis on community labs, must also be promoted to develop holistic, sustainable solutions, which will, in turn, lead to a Synthetic Biology Drive in India.
However, there continues to be a need to streamline and integrate opportunities from a high school level, along with developing a pool of educators and mentors who will be instrumental in building the infrastructure for SynBio from the ground up. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), India has recently started a Synthetic Biology training program for postgraduates, Ph.D. Students, Postdocs, and faculty members in 2018, that have begun to introduce the field in Indian Academia, a positive step towards making this knowledge accessible to all. Grassroots efforts, such as mentorship programs, capacity building workshops, development of centralized resources and infrastructure, will pave the way to reimagining the landscape of Synthetic Biology in our country, by empowering students and educators with tools to build SynBio solutions to community problems and in the long run, create a more diverse and inclusive bio-economy.
(The author is Director, iGEM Indian League. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)