Engineered or synthetic biology is an emerging field in which new biological systems are created or existing ones are altered to perform new functions. For example, microbes that produce chemicals they would not normally produce or that seek out and destroy cancerous tumors. The industry has enormous economic potential and is predicted to be worth $10.8 billion by 2016.
Synthetic biology is promising but not yet systematic. It often relies on expensive and inefficient trial-and-error efforts to optimize designs for each new application. Better measurements and a theoretical understanding of the control mechanisms of biological systems will make these engineering efforts less costly and more predictable.
NIST currently invests about $1 million to address measurement challenges in synthetic biology, specifically in reducing the uncertainty of DNA sequencing. Working closely with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and academic and industrial collaborators, NIST has been active in mapping out future efforts with the synthetic biology community.
Through a series of international symposia focused on synthetic biology, the community identified several major technical challenges that need to be overcome for synthetic biology to realize its full potential. These challenges may be overcome by creating standardized biological components, additional measurements and databases; establishing better understanding of the underlying scientific foundations for biological systems; developing new tools to test and control the interactions of synthesized biological materials; and building ways to enhance worldwide collaboration.
The president's FY 2015 budget requests an increase of $7 million (for a total of $8 million) to ensure quality and predictability in the design of synthetic biological systems for efficient production of fuels, chemical feedstocks, pharmaceuticals and medical therapies.
Initiative-funded efforts will include the following:
Much of NIST's current research is done in the Material Measurement Laboratory's Biosystems and Biomaterials Division.
NIST has several post-doctoral opportunities in synthetic biology.