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Given the vast collaborative opportunities that involves disciplines such as Engineering, Computer Science, and Chemistry, the scope for aspirants is immense.
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 such as standardisation, replicability, modelling, and modularisation to biological systems? The broad answer to this is the field called Synthetic Biology (SynBio).
This interdisciplinary field of research utilises 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. A basic example would be modifying an organism’s DNA to allow it 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 especially in the past five years. But, while biotech infrastructure and resources exist and technological advances have allowed the cost of sequencing and DNA synthesis to drop, this was not directed towards Synthetic Biology. However, given the need for trained professionals, educational institutes have now begun to encourage interested students to study the field theoretically and practically as part of their coursework in graduate and postgraduate degrees, 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, career opportunities can range from entrepreneurship, research, and manufacturing to SynBio education, bioethics, and policy development. For example, Biopharmaceutical companies 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 that 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 programme for postgraduates, Ph.D. and post-doctoral students,and faculty members. Grassroots efforts, such as mentorship programmes, capacity-building workshops, development of centralised resources and infrastructure will re-imagine the country’s Synthetic Biology landscape by empowering students and educators with tools to build solutions to community problems and, in the long run, create a more diverse and inclusive bio-economy.
The writer is Director, iGEM Indian League