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    Biology

    Biology literally means “study of life” [from the ancient Greek “bios – βίος” (life) and “logos – λόγος” (lore)]. As a discipline of natural sciences, it deals with all aspects of living organisms, from their chemistry and physiology up to their development and evolution. As such, biology started as a solely descriptive discipline, as scientists wished to understand the very fundamentals of life and how living organisms function and relate to each other.

    Only since the early 1960s, scholars have begun to comprehend the significance of the genetic code as the basic principle of life; that it contains the blueprint for an organism’s architecture and all its biochemical processes. Starting in the 1970s, molecular tools and techniques allowing, for the first time, the deliberate change in the genetic setup of a given organism have been developed, and the new technology was dubbed “genetic engineering”. The term “engineer” describes somebody who produces or generates [new] things, and biologists now have the opportunity to engineer life forms with novel properties.

    Today, 50 years later, several more disciplines of biology have emerged, e.g., biotechnology or systems biology. While the borders between those disciplines are somewhat blurred, it becomes clear that modern biology has developed into much more than an exclusively descriptive field of study. First, biology changed into a truly interdisciplinary arena, since the engagement of chemists, physicists, computing scientists, and engineers is mandatory to tap into the full potential of genetic engineering. The vast amount of data coming from the numerous genome projects and deciphered biochemical pathways cannot be translated into a true blueprint of life without the input of systems analysis and signal processing, for example. And the famous quote of the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman “What I cannot create, I do not understand” /1/ has become the central dogma of the new discipline:

    Synthetic Biology.

    Not only will the ability to design a living organism help us to understand the fundamentals of life, it will also enable us to devise biological systems for various purposes, e.g., to generate energy independent from fossil fuel resources or to use organisms for biomanufacturing of fine chemicals or pharmaceuticals. Hence, synthetic biology seeks the input from diverse engineering disciplines to apply a rational approach for the design of genetic circuits or, e.g., to implement a design–build–test–learn cycle to improve biological systems. On the other hand, living organisms have evolved numerous solutions to cope with their challenges and understanding the strategies encoded in the blueprint of life can also inspire engineering and help develop new methodologies.

    Our Lab

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    Driven by the guiding principles of synthetic biology, the Plant Biotechnology and Metabolic Engineering research group at TU Darmstadt endeavors to capitalize on the versatility of biological systems and re-wire them to generate new functionalities within the impressive repertoire of specialized metabolites – natural compounds bearing therapeutic and/or economic potential. /2/ Taking advantage of state-of-the-art laboratories and greenhouse facilities, the team, viewing engineered living organisms as bioreactors and biofactories, aims at tapping into the astounding diversity of the natural world and pushing its frontiers.

    Promotion and support of young researchers is one of our priorities. Since 2012, the Plant Biotechnology and Metabolic Engineering group has been home to enthusiastic budding scholars participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. /3/ Working in multidisciplinary teams and guided by the core tenets of synthetic biology, our iGEMers have been tackling unique challenges facing the modern world.

    Our Metabolic Engineering Whiteboard

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    Literature

    /1/ Twilley N. 2016. What’s the point of streamlining nature? The New Yorker (April 2), https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/whats-the-point-of-streamlining-nature (accessed February 27, 2018).

    /2/ Plant Biotechnology and Metabolic Engineering reaserch group, https://www.bio.tu-darmstadt.de/ag/professuren/ag_warzecha/Warzecha.en.jsp (accessed April 10, 2018).

    /3/ International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, http://igem.org (accessed February 27, 2018).