Thursday, December 11, 2014
What is Biological Engineering?
Traditional fields of engineering utilize core principles from sciences to solve problems. For example, Chemical Engineering uses principles of chemistry and fluidics to solve problems. Similarly, Biological Engineering uses principles of Biology to solve problems. In solving such problems, elements of life such as nucleotides, cells, tissues became basic tools that can be combined in interesting ways to solve problems.
One direct application of Biological Engineering in the field of biomanufacturing. Among the earliest developments of biotechnology was the production of human insulin by recombinant cells at Genentech. In this case, cells and their genome were utilized as the substrate to solve a critical problem: the production of a critical hormone.
With respect to the modules in 20.109, the “biology as a substrate to solve problems” definition of Biological Engineering also fits. For the first module, we developed plasmids with a fluorescent readout for DNA repair. Thus, genes and recombination techniques were utilized as tools to solve the problem of how to measure DNA repair within a cell. For the second module, we utilized a site-directed mutagenesis approach to optimize a bacterial photography system. The system itself utilized the cell as a tool to solve a basic problem: converting a light-based input to a protein-based output. Our optimization similarly utilized biological tools like mutagenesis to optimize this existing system. Finally, in the third module we utilized phage and nanoparticles to increase solar cell efficiency. Once again, a biological component, in this case a phage, was utilized a substrate to solve a critical problem.
On the theoretical end, Biological Engineering also involves utilizing mathematical models to understand biological systems. 20.320 (Analysis of Biological Systems) focused primarily on this aspect of Biological Engineering, allowing us create models for receptor binding and internalization, cellular signaling, and protein folding.
Overall, Biological Engineering is an exciting and novel field that utilizes biology to solve problems. As the basic principles of life continue to be understood, further and more exciting applications—to both biological and nonbiological systems—will be discovered, leading to tremendous scientific and social advancement.