While relatively few insects are highly accessible to the most sophisticated and advanced genome manipulation and modification technologies one gets the feeling the this is going to change very soon. The technologies available now are beginning to allow for the creation and introduction of not just a transgene but of genetic circuits, and technologies and delivery systems are rapidly evolving. The distinction between genetic engineering and synthetic biology (if there ever was one beyond terminology) continues to fade.
The February 2015 issue of Trends in Biotechnology is a Special Issue entitled Manifesting Synthetic Biology and it is worth the attention of insect biologist with an interest in genetic technologies. In fact, this blog already reported on one of the papers in this issue . IGTRCN Participant Bill Reid (University of Maryland College Park) told us about Quantifying On- and Off-Target Genome Editing by Hendel et al. The rest of the issue makes for fascinating and even inspiring reading.
Zakeri and Carr discuss The Limits of Synthetic Biology where they consider big challenges or perhaps limitations. In their words they ask
“Is there a synthetic biology equivalent of the sound barrrier, or the speed of light?”
They assert that evolution poses the most significant barrier and that ‘taming’ evolution will be essential. This idea has already permeated insect genetic engineering. Slowing or eliminating the evolutionary degradation of engineered phenotypes might be hard but possible in some cases.
Geering and Fussenegger review Synthetic Immunology: Modulating the Human Immune System and what is particularly striking about what they present is the breadth and depth of ideas, approaches, strategies and tactics being considered and the variety of technologies being developed and deployed. It is really an amazing effort. Inspirational would not be too strong a word.
Zhang and Cui review Optogenetic Control of Intracellular Signally Pathways. They take a look at photoactivatable proteins and explain how they work and then go on to describe their use to control signalling pathways. Light activation can be controlled spatially and temporally by controlling the direction of light and the authors provide some examples of this being done at the subcellular level.
Finally, Stein and Alexandrov review Synthetic Protein Switches:Design Principles and Applications. Protein switches can be used to sense or to actuate functions in cells and engineered switches are already being used – for some diagnostics, for example. This is difficult work requiring an understanding of protein design rules but increasingly these rules are being revealed.
Overall, the work presented in this issue of Trends in Biotechnology show insect biologists what lies ahead and it is clear that in the not-too-distant future we will not be limited by what we can technically do but by our creativity.