Berkeley Lab scientists Tijana Radivojevic (left) and Hector Garcia Martin working on mechanistic and statistical modeling, data visualizations, and metabolic maps at the Agile BioFoundry last year.
Machine learning takes on synthetic biology: algorithms can bioengineer cells for you.
If you’ve eaten vegan burgers that taste like meat or used synthetic collagen in your beauty routine—both products that are “grown” in the lab—then you’ve benefited from synthetic biology. It’s a field rife with potential, as it allows scientists to design biological systems to specification, such as engineering a microbe to produce a cancer-fighting agent. Yet conventional methods of bioengineering are slow and laborious, with trial and error being the main approach.
Now scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a new tool that adapts machine learning algorithms to the needs of synthetic biology to guide development systematically. The innovation means scientists will not have to spend years developing a meticulous understanding of each part of a cell and what it does in order to manipulate it; instead, with a limited set of training data, the algorithms are able to predict how changes in a cell’s DNA or biochemistry will affect its behavior, then make recommendations for the next engineering cycle along with probabilistic predictions for attaining the desired goal.