In the 20th century, chemical engineers developed the methods and the underlying principles to convert fossil fuels into the array of chemical products that enable our current lifestyle. Unfortunately, this system is not sustainable and societal pressures to change it are increasing. The next generation of chemical engineers will develop new methods to make products from renewable resources such as biomass or harness solar energy to power the conversion of carbon dioxide to chemicals. A closed carbon cycle will require efficient chemical and/or biological routes to generate products that can be cleanly combusted to yield energy and to recycle carbon. My long term vision of the chemical industry involves the use of modern biotechnology, and specifically synthetic biology, to engineer systems where chemicals are produced sustainably.
Synthetic biology combines elements of engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and biology to synthesize novel systems from characterized biological components. With rapid advances in DNA sequencing and synthesis technologies, synthetic biology has evolved from classic recombinant DNA technologies wherein a small number of genes were actively manipulated, to a state where small genomes can be synthesized and transformed into protoplasts to enable self-replication. The next generation of synthetic biologists will develop the tools and understanding necessary to build microorganisms from scratch and help delineate the ethical boundaries of what systems should be engineered. Like other engineering disciplines, synthetic biologists apply fundamental principles of math and science to assemble useful devices and products. The difference in this case is the ability of biological systems to self-replicate and evolve. Therefore, synthetic biology research involves (a) identifying new biological components and quantitatively characterizing their biochemical or biological function, (b) developing tools for quick assembly of novel systems comprised of biological components, (c) engineering novel systems to solve problems and (d) optimizing the performance of biological systems in the context of an evolving organism. My group has made contributions to each of these aspects by studying the production of chemicals from renewable resources. Our work can be categorized into four areas: component discovery and characterization, tool development, metabolic engineering, and systems biology.
The picture below compares how the "parts and machines" of a synthetic biological system are constructed of many different constituent pieces, analogous to those of a different engineering discipline, e.g. electrical and computer engineering.