Non-replicating Simple (sim) Cells
As the field of synthetic biology expands, more applications arise where scientists will be releasing modified organisms into the environment. Synthetic organisms can be used for a variety of purposes, including fixing nitrogen in the soil for agricultural growth, breaking down oils and plastics in the environment, and introduction into human bodies as living therapeutics. From a biocontainment perspective, we have an obligation to ensure these released organisms do not cause environmental harm, do not grow and spread uncontrollably, and do not transfer powerful molecular machinery to non-native hosts. As a best practice, the use of cells that lack the ability to replicate in the environment would reduce the risk of accidental population expansion beyond the intended application.
To achieve this goal, we are designing synthetic organisms that depend upon specific laboratory provided small molecules to grow and divide. Such cells can be produced in large volumes in a controlled environment with the small molecule supplemented in the growth media; these cells can be starved of the growth enabling molecule before released into the environment. In this non-dividing state, these Simple Cells will still be metabolically capable of producing the necessary machinery to complete a predefined task, such as breaking down plastic.