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Synthetic biology in the fight against COVID-19

On Thursday 18th June at 4pm BST/ 11am EST, Front Line Genomics is bringing you an interactive discussion from global experts in synthetic biology to discuss how we could have used this innovative science to be better prepared for COVID-19.

In preparation, we took a deeper look at what synthetic biology is, its applications and how people are using this to fight the pandemic.

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is a multi-disciplinary area of research that uses a mixture of biology, engineering, genetics, chemistry and computer science to alter the structure and function of microorganisms. Synthetic biology has many applications ranging from drug and vaccine development, applications in food and agriculture, manufacturing and diagnostic tests.

In the fight against the current pandemic, scientists are turning to synthetic biology to speed up the development of a vaccine.

While there are a wide variety of uses, this article will focus on the applications in diagnostics, vaccine and therapeutic development.


Synthetic biology can be applied to help provide diagnostic tests, including Toehold circuits and in vitro CRISPR-based detection approaches, which could be utilised to test COVID-19 patients. Scientists can apply these approaches to develop diagnostic kits that are easy to distribute.

Likewise, synthetic biologists are also experts in the scaling and automatising molecular biology experiments to high-throughput levels. Currently, the WHO recognises a RT-qPCR test with standard and confirmed primers and probes, but there is an increasing lack of RNA extraction kits that are needed for this type of test, leading to a bottleneck in testing people. This could be a unique opportunity for synthetic biology applications to scale up testing.

Vaccine development

When a disease outbreak occurs far away, such as in the case of COVID-19 which was first discovered in Wuhan, China, it can take months for laboratories to access physical samples. In these situations, researchers can use a synthetic version of the virus, called an infectious clone, so that they are able to start research without losing critical time. The scientists can manipulate the DNA of the clone by removing and adding genes to gain insight into the genes that influence its virulence.

Another major advantage is that scientists can run computer models of millions of different protein sequences to find one that will spontaneously form the ideal nanoparticle.  Synthetic biology can turn to an automated platform for rapid DNA synthesis to generate several vaccine candidates for the SARS-CoV-2 virus much faster than is usually possible.

At the beginning of this pandemic, scientists were able to take the genome assemblies for SARS-CoV-2 and use those sequences to build genomic constructs for vaccine candidates. A team of researchers at the University of Washington used an automated synthetic biology platform to build five potential vaccine candidates which were tested in mice in just two weeks from the launch of the project.

What are people doing with Synthetic biology to fight COVID-19?

This list is not exhaustive:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have invested in synthetic biology hoping to engineer vaccines for COVID-19. A vaccine that is developed through synthetic biology would be highly scalable to millions and would work without needing to be refrigerated, which is ideal for global applications.

A number of companies have been developing experimental vaccines containing synthetic strands of RNA or DNA, one of which INO-4800, is currently in phase I human clinical trials and works by delivering synthetic genes into a person’s cells.

Researchers at Distributed Bio are collaborating with WHO and the US military to create pseudo-virion versions of the disease (that pose less risk) to help discover antibodies.

Barriers and policy making

Despite the potential benefits, synthetic biology is not currently utilised to its full potential due to scientific, legal and ethical uncertainties. Concerns include risks unintended uses that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and other, potentially harmful, unintended effects of the synthetic technologies.

International and EU law touches on some of the risks associated with synthetic biology and its responsible use in response pandemics. Given that synthetic biology has a growing list of agents of concern, there is a need to develop monitoring systems and introduce safeguards to prevent possible chemical and biological threats.

The safe use of synthetic biology in its various contexts relies on the standardisation of its risk assessment methodologies and on its governance requirements that need to be reviewed and improved over time. It is important to consider the general uncertainty surrounding the potential risks of synthetic biology and the absence of data on the hazards, exposure, and consequences of synthetic organisms during the clinical trial design of synthetic vaccines.

Join the discussion to hear more about where we should be investing and what have we learned on Thursday 18th June, 4pm BST/ 11am EST.