Researchers Just Solved One of the Biggest Problems in Synthetic Biology


  • Researchers have discovered that placing synthetic genetic circuits in liposomes prevents them from interfering with one another, while still allowing them to communicate.
  • Not only could this new form of “modular” genetic circuits lead to more complex engineered circuits, it could also provide insight as to how the earliest life on Earth formed.


By applying engineering principles to biology, researchers can create biological systems that don’t exist naturally. A problem of synthetic biology, however, is that these engineered genetic circuits can interfere with each other. While beneficial on their own, some of these man-made circuits become useless when they come in contact with each other, and this bars them from being used to solve complex biological problems.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have found a way around this by creating a synthetic cell barrier to separate genetic circuits from each other, preventing interference while still allowing the circuits to communicate with each other when researchers want them to.

To isolate the genetic circuits, the researcher placed them in liposomes, synthetic cells that aren’t alive but have the tools needed to manufacture proteins. More importantly, they have a fatty membrane that acts as a wall between the different reactions occurring in each genetic circuit. This barrier also allows for communication between cells of different types of organisms, which the researchers demonstrated by creating a bacterial circuit that would transfer a protein to a mammalian circuit as a reaction to a certain drug.

“If you separate circuits into two different liposomes, you could have one tool doing one job in one liposome, and the same tool doing a different job in the other liposome,” the study’s lead author Daniel Martin-Alarcon says in a press release. “It expands the number of things that you can do with the same building blocks.”

Synthetic Biology explained (video here).