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A Cell Without a Cell?

Written By Ashley Koca

The biological sciences are advancing beyond what has been defined by nature: from cellular functions now reproduced outside the cell to the use of “BioBricks” to construct DIY lifeforms, synthetic biology is the future of the life sciences. 

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field that aims to take biology into human hands. Developments in synthetic biology include the creation of the cell-free system, most famously. The Northwestern Center for Synthetic biology explains that this process reconstructs cellular lysates to become a sort of “factory” able to produce commercial pharmaceutical biomolecules and proteins (albeit, it is not limited to drug creation). This revolutionary process is reminiscent of the development of insulin produced from nonhuman organisms for human use through early genetic engineering in 1978, another process in which humanity used the forces of biology to its advantage. In a paper published by the Center for Synthetic Biology, the power of cell-free gene expression (CFE) is groundbreaking due to “eliminating the constraint of sustaining life.” 

Cell-free systems have shown to be increasingly beneficial as compared to traditional cellular mechanisms— in this case, biosensor technology. Traditional membrane-bound biosensors are engineered to express fluorescence conditionally — only when exposed to the molecule of interest. Cell-free sensors perform in a nearly identical manner, but their “unbound” nature proves to be advantageous when identifying cytotoxic or cell wall-impermeable analytes. Additionally, given that the systems are not confined by the responsibility to support life, the systems are independent of evolution and are immune to the random processes of evolution like mutation. 

But why does any of this matter, what does the real world get out of cell-free biosensing?

Cell-free systems are free of life as well as membrane. Meaning, scientists have no obligation to grow and culture them in a lab under specialized conditions, since the systems are nonliving they do not require the same cautious care as true cells do. These systems are transportable and usable anywhere. This means that in remote locations, like rural medical clinics, infections can be detected in patients’ blood samples on-site. These sensors also have the potential to be freeze-dried, as proved in 2014. This improves their storage life by months, further widening the gap of benefits between living and nonliving biological sensors. Additionally, since CFE can be activated at a range of non-extreme temperatures, this technology can be used practically anywhere, anytime, and by anyone — all thanks to that they are independent of the obligation of life. 

Synthetic biology is not only successful in its development of cell-free systems and CFE, but it is also nationally recognized as critical to the bioeconomy of the US. In 2012 the Obama Administration released a report in the National Bioeconomy Blueprint detailing just how much this new field means to the progress of the United States’ energy production, in particular. 

“. . . the Administration recognizes the potential of biological systems to influence the future of energy production in the United States. In response, the DOE’s Biological and Environmental Research Program has committed $30 million to initiate research efforts to identify biological design principles that will provide understandings of plant and microbial systems to enable synthetic redesign.”

Synthetic biology is the science of the future, as indicated by the US government, but you don’t need to be a scientist or politician to tell. In fact, you could be an undergrad studying at practically any four-year university. 

At many universities, there exists research teams participating in an annual synthetic biology/genetic engineering competition — International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, or more commonly, iGem. Founded by MIT in 2003, iGem is a competition mainly for undergraduate students that takes place at the conclusion of each summer. Competitors are given a kit of biological parts to start off with. Teams use BioBricks to engineer their desired organism, doing so with, more plainly, plasmids. Previous iGem submissions have included a bacterial arsenic biosensor and an engineered a red blood cell substitute from E. coli. Competitions like iGem garner recognition for the ever-growing field of synthetic biology.

With both iGem and synthetic biology at large, ethical concerns cannot be ignored. A competition like iGem only promotes the extremes, people will design their wildest dreams. This blurs the line between lifeform and machine, where does one draw the line when individuals quite literally design life to be toyed with. This not only applies to the competition, but the science at large. When using synthetic biology to meddle with living things, there are implications of a greater magnitude than that of a cell-free, lifeless system. In the coming decades as this science grows into prominence, these ethic concerns will continue to develop in complexity and specificity to be debated for the duration of their relevance. 

Although synthetic biology is accompanied by a multitude of potentially dangerous ethical hoops to jump through, what up and coming science isn’t? The progression of science depends upon a happy medium maintained by those who practice it. The potential benefits of synthetic biology are far too great to be ignored, and, if handled correctly, could change the world for the better. From the betterment of the US bioeconomy to the potential to test for blood toxins in underdeveloped regions, synthetic biology just may allow humanity to take a few steps forward. After all, the Northwestern Center for Synthetic Biology believes that “ this new paradigm [synthetic biology] will enable a deeper understanding of why nature’s designs work as they do, and open the way to novel therapeutics, sustainable chemicals, and new materials that have been impractical, if not impossible, to produce by other means.” 

Work Cited


Silverman, A. D., Karim, A. S., & Jewett, M. C. (2019). Cell-free gene expression: an expanded repertoire of applications. Nature Reviews Genetics. doi: 10.1038/s41576-019-0186-3

The White House. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Tinafar, A., Jaenes, K., & Pardee, K. (2019). Synthetic Biology Goes Cell-Free. BMC Biology, 17(1). doi: 10.1186/s12915-019-0685-x

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