Friday, June 20, 2014

Synthetic Biology: Paging Doctor Frankenstein

Susannah Locke, writing at Vox, has a nice article on the new discipline of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology, which has been described as "genetic engineering on steroids" (genetically engineered super steroids?), aims at designing new organisms from scratch, starting by crafting the DNA sequence base pair by base pair. Or if nature's own DNA isn't quite versatile enough, how about building new forms of DNA with more letters in the genetic code, the better to build new proteins with amino acids nature forgot to include?

For now, the targets of opportunity either in building better microbes (to do things like synthesize petroleum from Sunlight) or medical applications like building replacement organs. Locke:

Welcome to the strange new world of synthetic biology, in which living things are a tool to be manipulated for practical ends. It's a world in which, someday, organisms designed from scratch could convert waste into fuel or enter people's bodies to kill cancer.

Some scientists see synthetic biology as the best bet to tackle some of the world's most pressing problems — like the ever-increasing demand for food and energy. But the prospect of possible mishaps, not to mention concerns about tinkering with life to begin with, are certainly there, too. Here's a primer on synthetic biology.

some highlights:

Medicine: Synthetic biology might one day allow scientists to program cells to precisely detect and kill cancer cells. Or perhaps program cells to self-assemble into spare organs for transplants. Some scientists are already using partially synthetic organisms to manufacture drugs that are otherwise impractical to make...

A more efficient process for making anti-malarial drugs: Artemisinin is one of the most effective drugs to treat malaria. But for a long time, it had to be derived from the sweet wormwood plant Artemisia annua — a slow and expensive process.


That changed in 2013, when pharmaceutical firm Sanofi used synthetic biology to produce artemisinin at an industrial scale. The company did this by taking the plant's genes for making artemisinic acid and putting them in yeast, allowing them to produce the drug more quickly and efficiently. It's widely cited as the first large-scale drug project to use synthetic biology and a major achievement for the field.

2) Creating bacteria from scratch: In 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute published the results of a 15-year, $40 million project to make the first synthetic cell. How did they do it? They took out the genomic code from one bacterial species, made it in a lab from scratch, and then put it into an entirely different species — that lived.

The genome they made also included some deleted genes and new sequences that acted as watermarks. And, all in all, the scientists created the first life-form living on completely synthetic genetic material. They called it the first synthetic cell. (However, they didn't say that they created life itself from scratch. Had they put the DNA into an already-dead cell, nothing would have happened.)

Logical circuit elements built purely from biological parts have also been synthesized.

Potential hazards exist, as one might suspect.