After decades of study, knowledge on the molecules that comprise living cells has advanced to the point where it is now possible to mimic biological constituents and their interactions using synthetic approaches. This growing research field, synthetic biology, utilizes an interdisciplinary mixture of biology and engineering to recreate, reconfigure or repurpose cellular components. Importantly, as the field of synthetic biology matures, its goals will correspondingly progress from proof-in-principle demonstrations to practical applications, which will target problems that range from the environment to the clinic.
Such approaches oftentimes rely on bacteria because their genomes are smaller and more easily manipulated than those of eukaryotes. Moreover, nonpathogenic bacteria can be easily, rapidly and cheaply grown into densely populated cultures. Therefore, the availability of microbial biomaterial can allow relatively untrained student researchers to pursue many different types of synthetic biology-based goals. One important area of synthetic biology that is increasingly accessible to student researchers is the engineering of genetic regulatory circuits and networks. It is now possible to design or discover new genetic regulatory components, which are similar to but distinct from natural counterparts and which can be used to control expression of targeted genes. Moreover, these targeted genes can, if desired, include reporter genes, whose output can be easily quantified (e.g., fluorescence, luciferase). When configured correctly, the combination of these genetic components can collaborate to create analytical tools called biosensors, biomolecules that couple detection of a specific chemical analyte to an output signal that can be quantified.