The cell catalyst to produce new kinds of molecules and biological processes without the evolutionary constraints of using intact living cells.
But less than 20 years ago, this burgeoning field within synthetic biology still had much to prove.
In a review paper published, explores how cell-free engineering evolved from a specialized research tool to the backbone of a variety of applications in synthetic biology that stand to impact society, from the environment to medicine to education.
Now, synthetic biology garners wide interest. Commercial industries are popping up around these technologies. Granting agencies are seeing the importance.
While cell-free gene expression has used as a research tool for more than 50 years, its transformative potential has limited by several constraints, including low and variable protein synthesis yields, short reaction durations, and small reaction scale.
Researchers also battled against doubts that controlling the reaction environment within cells would remain beyond reach.
But, in the last 20 years, synthetic biology researchers have peeled back the curtain of cell-free gene expression’s potential, uncovering new insights in the lab that have led to new efficiencies and applications outside of it from biosensors to measure and check environmental contaminants in natural resources to targeted therapeutics to treat disease.
The system is not only optimized to produce the highest batch reaction expression yield of a protein to date, but the platform can make proteins with non-canonical amino acids, expanding the encoded chemistry available to proteins and opening the door to create new types of enzymes, materials, and therapeutics.
As cell-free synthetic biology has grown in importance, so too has Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology.
Launched in 2016 to bring together the brightest minds in the field and to provide a supportive ecosystem for research and education, the center has established itself as a leader of cell-free systems research and technological development.
The team has come together we’ve thought about research themes that not only connect us but also position Northwestern as having a particular strength and cell-free systems have emerged.
Recent advances by center faculty have pushed the boundaries of cell-free engineering even further. The system, which combines cell-free protein synthesis technology with SAMDI mass spectrometry platform, will help synthetic biologists design more complex molecules faster than ever.
A researcher recently demonstrated the first instance of using cell-free systems to drive the fusion of lipid nanoparticles an emerging carrier for drug-delivery opening the door to new and complex types of biochemical reactions.
The interface of synthetic biology and systems biology to achieve design-driven medicine. Earlier this year, he chaired the Sixth International Mammalian Synthetic Biology Workshop hosted at Northwestern.
The company applies research mission to understand how cellular systems sense and respond to their environments through a platform of technologies, including one focused on environmental water quality monitoring. A researcher recently started SwiftScale Biologics, which seeks to speed up a drug’s arrival to the market using cell-free systems.
The technology is ready to apply outside the lab to address societal issues, and companies are emerging to give them a fair shake in the marketplace.
The next decade will welcome even greater milestones, thanks in part to growing research collaborations.
The interactive kits, now used in dozens of Evanston and Chicago classrooms, equip students to conduct synthetic and molecular biology experiments by adding water and simple reagents to freeze-dried cell-free reactions.
We must provide training opportunities to students, so they’re excited about supporting and contributing to the emerging bio-economy.
And what about the first FDA-approved therapeutic supported by a cell-free system? As companies improve the ability to scale the production of engineered proteins, the Researcher said.