Though existing tools are clearly insufficient for answering many biological questions, the team wondered whether synthetic biology was actually the best way to produce better tools. For instance, researchers could envision the usefulness of creating precise inputs using synthetic biology, but it was less clear that synthetic biology could produce better ways of detecting outputs from natural systems.
The team developed a rough model of how synthetic networks could be linked into biological systems. Their “synthetic Swiss army knife” would be genetically encoded into a cell, complete with simple start and stop buttons that work reliably. These would attach to an oscillator or wave generator whose frequency could be tuned. The team also envisioned adding a noise filter which could make the signal sent into the cell more random. Scientists could link this tool to a real system at various points in the natural network.
By modulating the input functions, a researcher could very precisely control how much messenger RNA is made, how many changes like methylation or phosphorylation are added to a completed protein, or the concentration of proteins or ions in a cell. Many of these different components could be altered at once, or each change could be done sequentially. Using this system, the team could explore a larger range of behaviors in the natural networks, perhaps uncovering new principles along the way.
While synthetic biology is traditionally touted as a way to create tailor-made, artificial biology, its potential for understanding the natural world has not yet been realized. Though a multi-purpose, synthetic biology-based tool as envisioned by the team is still a long ways away, it could ultimately provide a deeper understanding of natural biological systems.