Synthetic biology focuses on the development of biological systems with new defined characteristics assembled according to the principles of engineering. Synthetic biology has the potential to be used for a broad range of applications and has solutions in store for major problems of the future. It also fuels fears that human beings are playing the role of creators and going beyond natural boundaries.
The interaction of proteins and RNA is a crucial factor in the regulation of gene expression. These protein-RNA interactions can be specifically controlled and investigated inside the cell using proteins with customised chemical functions. In his doctoral thesis, chemist Moritz Schmidt from the University of Konstanz addresses the possibility of conveying new functions to proteins by introducing non-natural amino acids. He has developed a technique that uses red light to cross-link proteins with RNA.
As part of its “Bioethics Forum”, the German Ethics Council recently held a meeting in Berlin to inform the public about the fundamentals of synthetic biology and potential ethical problems and consequences in terms of our ideas about life and mankind in general arising from the progress made in this new field of research.
Dr. Stefan Schiller from the Center for Biological Systems Analysis (ZBSA) at the University of Freiburg combines synthetic biology and synthetic chemistry concepts in order to equip bacterial cells with organelle-like compartments. He has countless biotechnological applications in mind. In 2014, Schiller received the research prize “Next Generation of Biotechnological Methods – Biotechnology 2020+”. The prize is awarded every two years and provides around 3.4 million euros in funding for a period of five years.
Dr. Daniel Summerer from the University of Konstanz deals with the design of proteins and peptides with novel functions. His approach involves the ribosomal incorporation of unnatural amino acids into proteins with the objective of producing proteins with novel functions in living cells.
The Bioware team from Freiburg, an important part of the bioss cluster of excellence, has once again achieved resounding success: one gold medal and two special prizes at the iGEM competition (international Genetically Engineered Machine), the largest event for up-and-coming scientists focusing on synthetic biology. It was the turn of the research group heads, junior professor Dr. Kristian Müller and Dr. Katja Arndt, to participate in the competition with two teams, making it into the final round and showing that their Bioware and Software teams are among the six best biotech hubs in the world.
Biomolecules such as peptides and nucleic acids can nowadays be synthesised relatively quickly and inexpensively. In addition, great progress has been made in the development of methods enabling the directed mutagenesis in microorganisms. These two developments have boosted the design of new, and the reorganisation of known, molecules. Moreover, these help in the utilisation of certain molecule functions in research and in the industrial production of substances and active agents. Molecular design has also become an important process in medicine and environmental technology.
What can nowadays be constructed with molecular building sets? Prof. Dr. Wilfried Weber from the Centre for Biological Signalling Studies BIOSS in Freiburg is the first scientist at the University of Freiburg to receive the prestigious Starting Grant from the European Research Council ERC with a purse of 1.5 million euros. Webers team recombines cellular components and works on a broad range of different issues.
Gene switches or promoters are crucially important for the regulation of all cellular activities and thus play a pivotal role for researchers constructing externally controllable genetic circuits using synthetic biology methods. The most common artificial regulatory system uses the Tet technology and tetracycline-sensitive promoters invented by Bujard and his team.
Bacterial cells are focused on growth and proliferation. These processes are initiated by cellular enzymes that break up the cell wall material murein introduce new material and degrade material that is no longer needed. And all this in large amounts about 50 per cent of murein are degraded and newly formed turnover per cell generation. Dr. Christoph Mayer and his team from the University of Constance have shown that the cells carry out effective recycling processes.
After light-gated ion channels in nerve cells had successfully paved the way for optogenetics numerous tools have been added to the optogenetic toolbox. Photoreceptors are novel optogenetic tools which when coupled to enzymes and kinases can trigger certain cell functions upon illumination with light. Prof. Dr. Wilfried Weber synthetic biologist at BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies at the University of Freiburg is one of the scientists who have been the major drivers in the use of photoreceptors as optogenetic tools. The trend is moving towards being able to operate any controllable cellular process with light.
Dr. Birgit Wiltschi from the University of Freiburg has been awarded funding from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science Research and the Arts under the Biotechnology and Medical Technology Idea Competition for a highly ambitious project she wants to learn how proteins can be modified using non-natural building blocks that will enable the engineered proteins to specifically target receptors on cancer cells amongst other things.
Multidisciplinary talent, people who can combine biological knowledge in an outstanding way with engineering, is in great demand. Ralf Takors, who has been head of the Institute of Bioprocess Engineering (IBVT) at the University of Stuttgart since July 2009, is one such talent.
Researchers who intend to build enzymes in the laboratory need detailed knowledge about the function of the respective enzymes. Using modern biochemistry methods researchers led by Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle from the University of Freiburg have in the last few years clarified the atomic structure of a complex bacterial protein that converts atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be readily used by other organisms. The researchers have recently been awarded a European Research Council ERC Starting Grant.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is a human protein hormone that is predominantly produced in kidneys. Scientists from the Chair of Plant Biotechnology of the University of Freiburg, Germany, around Dr. Eva Decker and Professor Ralf Reski and from the Freiburg-based biotech company greenovation have genetically engineered the moss Physcomitrella patens in such a way that it now produces recombinant human asialo-EPO in the moss bioreactor. The researchers published their results in the current online-version of the Plant Biotechnology Journal.
Bacteria of the genus Mycoplasma are one of the smallest self-replicating cells and serve as model organisms in synthetic biology research for investigating essential life functions as well as being used as chassis for novel, tailor-made biosyntheses. Researchers from Heidelberg are among the groups who focus predominantly on investigating mycoplasma bacteria as minimal organisms.
Two scientists from the Interfaculty Institute of Microbiology and Infection Medicine IMIT at the University of Tübingen PD Dr. Evi Stegmann and Dr. Yvonne Mast are exploring the biosynthesis of antibiotic substances with the aim of modifying them to make them suitable for application in the fight against multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Dr. Stefan Schiller from the Institute for Macromolecular Chemistry at the University of Freiburg became interested in the diversity of molecular possibilities in nature as a student and is now a specialist in bionic chemistry and synthetic nanobiotechnology. Amongst other things his work involves the construction of complex protein machines that transfer signals protein networks for use in medicine and drug shuttles that enable the targeted application of drugs.
The European Research Council (ERC) awards Starting Grants to support excellent young scientists when they are starting an independent science career. In this year's round of proposals, three scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) have been chosen at once for the prestigious award: Ana Banito, Fabian Erdel and Moritz Mall.
The results of the feasibility studies funded under the Idea Competition in Biotechnology and Medical Technology were presented in the Haus der Wirtschaft in Stuttgart between 16th and 18th January 2012. Ten of the 42 project ideas were recommended for further funding.
Cells, receptor proteins, enzymes and DNA have outstanding properties. The question is, can they also be used as building blocks in computer processors, sensor systems and other micromachines in next generation microelectronics? In cooperation with his research group at the University of Kyoto and his partners in Freiburg, Prof. Dr. Osamu Tabata, microengineer and External Senior Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) is working on the development of a new generation of micromachines based on folded DNA molecules that is smaller, more intelligent and better than the previous generation.
In the new gene technology report, the interdisciplinary working group of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (BBAW) takes stock of gene technology developments in Germany during the past few decades, and discusses the societal, legal and ethical challenges associated with these technologies in the future. The report is highly topical due to the controversy surrounding the ruling of the European Court of Justice on CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing.
Prof. Dr. Wilfried Weber who was appointed professor of synthetic biology at the Centre for Biological Signalling Studies bioss at the University of Freiburg in May 2009 has always had a great interest in the practical application of biology. Weber and his team have a thorough understanding of how different parts of signalling networks can be reassembled for specific purposes for example switching off the antibiotic resistance of bacteria.
Prof. Dr. Harald Krug a toxicologist who runs the Materials-Biology Interaction division at Empa - Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research in St. Gallen Switzerland and his team are investigating the interactions of synthetic materials with biological systems. The team of 25 researchers is focusing in particular on the effect of particles and nanomaterials such as CNT on human and animal cells. The division has been an official member of the BioLAGO BioRegion since July 2008.
The European Research Council awards Wilfried Weber an ERC Proof of Concept Grant. Wilfried Weber, Professor of Synthetic Biology at the University of Freiburg, has received a grant of roughly €150,000 for his project “Hide and Seek with Cancer Drugs” in which he is working to improve the drugs used in cancer treatment.