“This paper outlines prospects for applying the emerging techniques of synthetic biology to the field of anatomy, with the aim of programming cells to organize themselves into specific, novel arrangements, structures and tissues. There are two main reasons why developing this hybrid discipline – synthetic morphology – would be useful. The first is that having a way to engineer self-constructing assemblies of cells would provide a powerful means of tissue engineering for clinical use in surgery and regenerative medicine. The second is that construction of simple novel systems according to theories of morphogenesis gained from study of real embryos will provide a means of testing those theories rigorously, something that is very difficult to do by manipulation of complex embryos. This paper sets out the engineering requirements for synthetic morphology, which include the development of a library of sensor modules, regulatory modules and effector modules that can be connected functionally within cells. A substantial number of sensor and regulatory modules already exist and this paper argues that some potential effector modules have already been identified. The necessary library may therefore be within reach. The paper ends by suggesting a set of challenges, ranging from simple to complex, the achievement of which would provide valuable proofs of concept.”
Maybe more light could be shed on the topic by comparison to regenerative medicine:
It should be noted that this approach is quite distinct from the ‘reprogramming’ of stem cells, for example for the purposes of regenerative medicine. The guiding principle of stem cell manipulation is that the genome of these cells already contains the complete ‘genetic programme’ for making all of the cell types in an embryonic and adult body. The (rather poorly chosen) word ‘reprogramming’ is used in this context to mean setting the state of the stem cells to some desired state of their existing developmental–genetic programme (e.g. the state of gene expression that corresponds to being a neural progenitor cell). The principle of the work described in this paper, by contrast, is to create entirely novel genetic programmes that do not already exist in any cell. To be clear, these novel programmes may use basic existing cell biological components common to all cells (e.g. guided self-assembly of actin filaments), but not ‘developmental’ modules that are present in only some times and places in embryos. If a normal mammalian tissue is desired, it is sensible to use stem cell approaches: synthetic morphology is intended to create structures that do not exist in any normal developmental programme. It should also be noted that there is no reason why the development of morphologies in designed systems should be based closely on how similar structures develop in evolved systems when another way would be more efficient. Part of the point of synthetic morphology is that it provides a means of escaping evolved life’s historically fixed constraints.
Fig. 3 Ten basic cellular mechanisms of animal morphogenesis. The development of most animal tissues, organs and bodies occurs by a combination of these events, each acting to a strictly controlled extent and in a strictly controlled sequence. Using these events as morphogenetic effector modules should therefore give synthetic morphology a great range of possible designed anatomies.