Synthetic Biology

Can bacteria be genetically manipulated to behave like machines? That is the central question of synthetic biology, a fairly new scientific discipline; one that can be answered with a resounding "yes."

In an experiment that was published in Nature late last year, scientists at the Universities of Texas and Cal San Francisco gave an example what could be possible in the future. They "programmed" E. coli bacteria to take photographs of the researchers, producing images in much the same way a Kodak film does.

If you're tempted to argue that photographic film has been around since 1888 and therefore nothing new, keep in mind that we're dealing with living organisms here, broken down into smaller components and reassembled into useful machines.

Of course, the researchers' goal is not to put Kodak out of business. "[The] creation will be used as a sensor to start and stop more complex genetic engineering experiments," a November 2005 AP article points out. "The idea is to create a genetically engineered cell that lays dormant until a laser is shined on it, prompting it into action."

"We want to do for biology what Intel does for electronics," says George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard and a leader in the field. "We want to design and manufacture complicated biological circuitry."

Chris Voigt, UCSF scientist and leader of the bacteria-as-film research, admits that "There is a kind of a hacker culture behind all this." Not surprisingly, many of synthetic biology's pioneers are not biologists by training.

Take Drew Endy of MIT, for example. He began his professional life as a structural engineer. Now Endy and colleagues at the school have started a Registry of Standard Biological Parts. The parts, called BioBricks, are strings of DNA that can perform specific functions. It was BioBricks that were used to create the microbial film.

As was the case with a similar new research track, nanotechnology, questions of ethics have been raised. Bioethicists worry that terrorists might try to create a new super-bioweapon, such as a virus with no natural checks on it. According to AP, "Researchers last year created a synthetic polio virus by simply stitching together [some] mail-order genes" that can be bought for a dollar apiece on the Internet.

And of course, there's always the possibility that a microbe engineered to perform a certain function escapes from its laboratory habitat and starts performing that function willy-nilly among the general population.

National security officers are addressing those questions, as are synthetic biologists themselves. The First International Meeting on Synthetic Biology was held in June of 2004 at MIT; a second national conference will meet this coming May; and last June the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation doled out $570,000 in grant money for the study of the social implications of the new field.

Whatever is decided about safety issues, this genie isn't going back in the bottle. It is already attracting investment dollars. Last summer, venture capitalists ponied up $13 million for Codon Devices, a startup that is developing ways to synthesize long stretches of DNA cheaply. Someday, an engineer at a computer may be able to write a tailor-made DNA sequence as programmers now write software. Hit Print and out it pops.

Though there are inherent problems--one big one is that microbes, unlike machines, are always dividing and evolving--the potential applications are essentially limitless. Right now, for example, Christina Smolke, an assistant professor at Cal Tech, is attempting to create circuits of biological parts that sit in the body's cells and guard against cancer. If they detected cancerous activity, they would switch on a gene to have the cell self-destruct.

Israeli scientists engineered the world's smallest computer by making DNA perform mathematical functions.

Some Berkeley scientists are combining E. coli with genes from the wormwood plant and yeast, trying to create a new malaria drug.

And Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome, wants to manufacture microbes that produce alternatives to fossil fuels.

As with much of modern science, the potential of synthetic biology can go both ways-providing the means for groundbreaking improvements in our quality of life or for unspeakable disaster. Let's hope that the ethics commissions are doing their job, so we'll all reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.

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Posted 02-07-2006 12:52 AM by Doug Casey