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Microbial systems engineering: First successes and the way ahead



The first promising results from “streamlined,” minimal genomes tend to support the notion that these are a useful tool in biological systems engineering. However, compared with the speed with which genomic microbial sequencing has provided us with a wealth of data to study biological functions, it is a slow process. So far only a few projects have emerged whose synthetic ambition even remotely matches our analytic capabilities. Here, we survey current technologies converging into a future ability to engineer large-scale biological systems. We argue that the underlying synthetic technology, de novo DNA synthesis, is already rather mature – in particular relative to the scope of our current synthetic ambitions. Furthermore, technologies towards rationalizing the design of the newly synthesized DNA fragment are emerging. These include techniques to implement complex regulatory circuits, suites of parts on a DNA and RNA level to fine tune gene expression, and supporting computational tools. As such DNA fragments will, in most cases, be destined for operating in a cellular context, attention has to be paid to the potential interactions of the host with the functions encoded on the engineered DNA fragment. Here, the need of biological systems engineering to deal with a robust and predictable bacterial host coincides with current scientific efforts to theoretically and experimentally explore minimal bacterial genomes.