learning synthetic biology? - (Feb/10/2014 )
Hello everyone. I'm a programmer who has recently learned about synthetic biology and the similarities between cells and computers, DNA and computer code, etc. have gotten me extremely interested in this field. Sadly I didn't know about this field few years earlier and I'm 21 now, a little old to learn from university and not enough free time or money to go that route.
I thought I can at least study this field like I did programming from the first time many years ago: via internet. I have only basic biology knowledge from high school courses. I understand there's *a lot* to learn, but I'm ready to spend years to learn something, the same way I was when I learned about what you could do with programming when I was a kid.
I'm not sure where to start learning synth bio. With programming you just type it in Wikipedia, learn its history and usage, available programming languages and then search for ebooks, join and post in forums/Q&A style sites and subscribe to few newsletters for news in the field.
With synth bio, I've only been able to find books that talk about particular subject (no introduction), or books about the history and potential of the field.
I've found this site called "OpenWetWare" which seems to allow to join a course in some university in some town by registering in the site.
I've also heard about diy bio groups around the world.
There are sadly no groups where I live.
Start by learning biology. I'd recommend starting with Watson, Molecular Biology of the Gene. Concentrate on learning about bacteria, at least at the beginning (so, ignore later chapters on Eukaryotes). Once you have some basics, branch out to some ofher books. Learn some bacterial physiology, with Neidhardt Physiology of the Bacterial Cell (out of print, but available). Or White, The Physiology and Biochemistry of Prokaryotes. Listen to the lectures given by Eric Lander in the MIT Open Courseware site (now perhaps EdX) in his introduction to biology. Come back when you've exhausted some of these.
Welcome to the forums. It's not often that we get a programmer on here.
Synthetic biology is basically making biologically active materials from their component parts - for instance, synthesizing genes from nucleotides or proteins from amino-acids. However, there are also those who push it to a higher level (e.g. Craig Venter) and are attempting to create "life" from scratch, mostly by taking cells, removing the contents and inserting synthesized copies of DNA from another organism (note that for many, but not all, viruses this has been possible for a long time - all you need to do is insert the viral DNA into a cell and you should get virus out). As far as I know, no-one has yet made a fully functional gene that doesn't already have a very similar counterpart in real life. The major difficulties being that a) folding of proteins is very very complex and we don't know enough about it yet, and b) most proteins don't function alone to do something - they usually need a substrate to work on and other proteins to help them, so creating a gene/protein to do some unknown function isn't easy, and how would you know it is functioning if you don't know what it does?.
As phage says, getting up to speed on your biology is probably where you need to start, but it isn't essential - if you have programming skills, there are always biologists who want to make new programs or improve the ones they already have, who might well be willing to give you a shot at designing something they need, where you could pick up some biology on the way.
For interest's sake, you might want to check out the registry of biological parts (parts.igem.org). The courses at openwetware are mostly regular university courses, so you would need to enrol, pay etc. to attend those. Saylor.org may also be useful, as might the NCBI bookshelf.
You will also need math. Math to model how non linear reactions between proteins will work together, when constructing systems like biological clocks and bistable switches.