7 Sep 2012

The Role of Computers in Synthetic Biology

Computers in Synthetic Biology
The Science of Synthetic Biology
Can life be built as if it were a computer program; lines of code combining to form a biological structure? Over the past half a century, human understanding of DNA and genetics has advanced to the point where it's possible to modify or even construct living organisms.

We now know the DNA  of an organism to be a structure composed of smaller structures with specific functions contributing to the greater whole, like a highly advanced software program composed of 'instruction sets'.

Many are familiar with the concept of genetic engineering, whereby the biology of various species can be modified by transferring a specific gene from one species to another. Synthetic biology, however, is a practice that has emerged more recently. According to The new Atlantis, it involves building living organisms from the ground up, utilizing genes in the way an engineer utilizes circuits to build a machine.

Of course, this requires these genes to be understood and categorized, just as an engineer would need to know the function of each circuit being used to build a mechanical device. DNA sequencing is the process by which scientists attempt to map the genetic structure of an organism, determining the architecture of its genetic code. Once the codes are mapped out, DNA synthesis allows them to be built and tested as one would with any system (synberc.org).

The Importance of Computer Science and Information Technology
Computers are essential to the success of synthetic biology. With their powerful mathematical capabilities and automation they can build, test and analyze theoretical systems. This creates a strong link between the fields of information technology, computer science and biology that is referred to as Bioinformatics (openmed.nic.in).

According to agwest.sk.ca, advancing computer technology enables progress in synthetic biology by providing the following functions:

• Storage: Once scientists have mapped genetic structures through DNA sequencing, these sequences need to be stored, as they form the blueprints for building biology. There are potentially billions of variations, and they would need to be readily accessible for use in comparisons and research. It would be impossible to manage without the storage capacity and database management systems of computers.

• Comparisons: Once the DNA sequences are established, they need to be analyzed. Computers can be used to compare DNA models and determine similarities between them. This aids scientists in determining the functions of various genes, and the relationship between various species on the evolutionary tree. Computers can also determine the structure of an organism by identifying points in the DNA architecture where protein production occurs.

• Communication: Computers allow researchers all over the world to interact with each other and access the work of other research teams.

Though computers already provide significant aid, there is plenty of room for improvement. The services of computer scientists will be vital in providing this, especially as the scale of data attained in genomic research increases.

Computer systems will need to become increasingly seamless in storing and processing the vast amounts of data and fault-tolerant to ensure the preservation of that data. They will need to increase in power to handle the multiple algorithms necessary to analyze vast amounts of genetic models and detect the patterns within them.

User interfaces will need to be developed that allow scientists to interact with all this data and readily access what they need, and database management systems that can differentiate and organize the vast number of DNA sequences will be required.

Programming the Future of Humanity
The ability to “build biology” is one of the most controversial issues facing the world, due to the moral issue of manipulating life, the environmental risk of introducing modified life forms to the ecosystem, and the possibility of this science being used to craft biological weapons.
But the potential benefits are immense.

In the area of medicine, genes could be manufactured to regenerate damaged cells and fight cancer, and expensive drugs could be produced in greater and cheaper quantities by modifying more readily available plants to provide the same properties, or manufacturing the source plant in greater quantities. In agriculture, the size and efficiency of crop yields could be increased.

It could aid in the quest for alternative energy sources, with scientists seeking to create modified corn capable of supplying higher amounts of bio-fuel, and enzymes that can efficiently extract hydrogen energy from water.

This will all be made possible by the creation of biological systems, which in turn will be aided by advancing computer systems. In this way, the fields of computer science and biological science are closely intertwined with each other and the future of humanity.

Matthew Flax

About the Guest Author:

This guest post was written by Matthew Flax. Matthew writes on behalf of Now Learning, an online education portal in Australia. Popular courses on Now Learning include IT degrees and photography certificates.