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The blog Lab Rat writes about a paper published in Nature Reviews Microbiology by Michael Kohanski and colleagues at Boston University that proposes the use of synthetic biology techniques to look at systems biology problems, something that Wendell Lim at UCSF has done in systems such as signalling networks and scaffold proteins.

The paper looks at the complexity of drug-target interactions and how a network-based approach, coupled with synthetically assembled combinations of genes introduced into bacteria using phages, could be used to probe how the cellular network behaves when hit by drugs and combinations of them.

From Lab Rat:

“By using synthetic genes to disrupt or alter the proposed antibiotic network novel drug targets could be discovered. If turned into a high-throughput system this would be far more useful than the current screening system which tests for a potential drugs interaction with a target, rather than the ability of this interaction to lead to cell death.”

The added genes might themselves form part of a longer-lasting antibiotic (or a family of them), Lab Rat concludes:

“Using combinations of drugs at lower concentrations, or aiding antibiotics by introducing them along with synthetic genes in bacteriophages allows an increased shelf-life of the drugs that we currently possess as well as providing potential systems to aid the discovery of new antibiotics.”

The title of the paper by a team from places as widespread as the University of Chicago, Cairo University and the Argonne National Laboratory gives the answer away, so I won’t repeat it here. The researchers mined genetic databases, including 2000 genomes and a large number of gene tags to predict which genes the most widespread in nature.

The answer is a bit unexpected, although there is a subtlety in the definition of the problem: it’s not the gene that results in the most protein, but the one best at “spreading its DNA around”.

Bio-design automation and synbio tools - The Design Automation Conference (DAC), held recently in San Francisco, concentrates on electrical engineering. But there are a lot of parallels between electrical design and the current state of synthetic-biology design. Melanie Swan reports on the design-automation tools that appeared at the First Workshop on Bio-Design Automation that was held on the first day at DAC.

I missed this in June when it first turned up but you can browse BioBrick parts on your iPhone with software from OpenWetWare. It's in the App Store here.

The New York Times reports that Exxon and J Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics are to work on biofuel-producing algae - presumably using some of the genetic components that Venter's researchers have been capturing from a wide variety of organisms on their bulk genome-sampling missions.

Lloyd's has taken a look at synthetic biology and decided insurers need to wise up over "systemic risks". According to Insurance Daily, the report says: "The enormity of some adverse scenarios suggests the inclusion of various forms of sub-limit in the future."

The Lloyd's report itself is available alongside the news release.

Nature blogs on concerns over the public acceptance of synthetic biology at the recent Washington DC conference organised by the OECD. And whether the technology needs a new name, like "shiny, happy biology". The blog post doesn't mention it but Drew Endy was referring to a joke made at the SB 2.0 conference in 2006 over whether "synthetic biology" was the right name.

Local news for Bostonians on an MIT competition for clean energy. Cambridge, MA-based InAct Labs, which is working on microbial fuel cells, is one of the semi-finalists.

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