Synthetic biology is a developing field of science that may have great impact on our future. Originally coined by geneticist Waclaw Szybalski in 1974, he described it as the next phase of molecular biology, a “field with the unlimited expansion potential and hardly any limitation to building”, in which he was “not concerned that we will run out of exciting and novel ideas”. Although still in its infancy and with few, but increasing, results, synthetic biology still contains incredible possibilities but has also raised debate about the many dangers such powerful knowledge of biological synthesis and its application could produce.
Synthetic biology, as the IEEE’s magazine describes, “uses engineering methods to produce something new by treating a living system not so much as a biological entity but as a kind of technology”. The goal of this approach is to tailor organisms to meet specific needs and is an offshoot of genetic engineering. The New Yorker adds further that for the scientists involved, “by using gene-sequence information and synthetic DNA, they are attempting to reconfigure the metabolic pathways of cells to perform entirely new functions, such as manufacturing chemicals and drugs.” Eventually they intend to construct genes – and new forms of life - from scratch. Synthetic biology can lead not only to alteration of organisms, but the entire creation of new ones, and this, along with the scale of its possible applications, is what makes it so revolutionary. As recently as 2007, one group even remarked that with synthetic biology, “for the first time, God has competition.”
Of course, there has yet to be enough development for any real competition to begin, but there have been a few promising developments. For example, in 2008, a team led by J. Craig Venter (of human genome fame), was able to create the entire genome of a bacteria using machines that stitched together the 582, 970 base pairs. There are plans to insert this DNA into an empty cell, where it will replicate and become the first artificial organism. In his report, Venter wrote that although only synthetic DNA was used, that for future work “It should be possible to assemble any combination of synthetic and natural DNA segments in any desired order”, especially once there is greater knowledge of genomes and what different sections code for.
Where Venter was able to show how synthetic biology can create organisms, an earlier experiment by Jay Keasling showed how it can be used to create new metabolic pathways, in his case the creation of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin from E. coli. Over a decade of development, his company was able to increase the amount each cell could create by a factor of one million and bring the cost of the drug down from ten dollars per course of treatment to less than one. Another devolpment in synthetic biology is the creation of the BioBricks Foundation, founded by scientists and engineers from MIT, Harvard and UCSF. Each BioBrick is a genetic sequence of defined structure and function that can be used in combination with other BioBricks in the same way a computer scientist creates programs, with the host cell becoming the chassis. The hope is that in the future, with the identification of enough bricks and advancements in sequencing technology, using information from sources like BioBricks, people will be able to select what they want on a computer and ‘print’ out the DNA – creating whatever modification or entirely new organism that they desire.
While the limits of synthetic biology have made it so that the tough ethical decisions remain to be faced, there is active debate over what restrictions need to be imposed now so that there is regulation in place when the technology catches up. There are two main thoughts: keep all knowledge public or highly protect it. For example, BioBricks are publicly available online and this fuels fears of biohackers and the easy creation of deadly pathogens for bioterrorism. Alternatively, by censoring and monitoring information, some think this will simply drive it underground where it will be even harder to control. Regardless of what is done to protect people from harm, there are still the questions of how much of this technology should be applied to humans. At what point do you stop people from designing their own children, and possibly ending human evolution, or is something that should be left to individual choice? Also, how environmentally dangerous could other creations be if let outside of the lab? As one scientist involved with BioBrick said in The New Yorker about a world populated by synthetic organisms, “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre farm. We would just be gone.”
Yet synthetic biology potentially holds many beneficial applications, for instance it could lead to the creation of biofuels or ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air in the same way it has already been used to make e. coli smell like wintergreen, able to remove arsenic from water, and glow, along with current attempts to create cells with memory of how many times they have divided. Further development in understanding of cells, genetics and synthesis technology will also be needed to get synthetic biology into larger and more complex projects, but until then it is still an interesting and promising field whose security and ethical implications need to be addressed before it reaches its full potential.