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Synthetic Biology and the BioBricks Revolution

February 14, 2010

If I had to do it all over again, political science might still be the choice, but there would definitely be two other serious contenders for an alternate career choice: Home Renovator/Property Developer OR Research Biologist. After reading this article on how it is possible for university students (or anyone really) to genetically engineer new life forms, I think Research Biologist has got a slight edge.

The first thing to understand about the new science of synthetic biology is that it’s not really a new science; it’s a brazen call to conduct an existing one much more ambitiously. For almost 40 years, genetic engineers have been decoding DNA and transplanting individual genes from one organism into another…. They want to write brand-new genetic code, pulling together specific genes or portions of genes plucked from a wide range of organisms — or even constructed from scratch in a lab — and methodically lacing them into a single set of genetic instructions. Implant that new code into an organism, and you should be able to make its cells do and produce things that nothing in nature has ever done or produced before.

This is basically genetic modification made easy.

We have already seen glimpses of a world where genetic modification is commonplace; there are two competing vision of that world. The first is altruistic, envisioning how synthetic biology (aka genetic modification) can be used to make the world a better place. (See the fuss over Golden Rice— Vitamin A enhanced rice.) The second is a frightening dystopia where we produce crops, creatures, and situations that we lose control of. (Now see the critiques of Golden Rice.) Proponents of synthetic biology definitely sit in the optimistic camp:

As commercial applications for this kind of science materialize and venture capitalists cut checks, the hope is that synthetic biologists can engineer new, living tools to address our most pressing problems. Already, for example, one of the field’s leading start-ups, a Bay Area company called LS9, has remade the inner workings of a sugar-eating bacterium so that its cells secrete a chemical compound that is almost identical to diesel fuel. The company calls it a “renewable petroleum.” Another firm, Amyris Biotechnologies, has similarly tricked out yeast to produce an antimalarial drug.

What is new and interesting about synthetic biology though is not just what it is able ot produce it, but the way in which it is being produced. The key word here is BioBricks.

[Drew] Endy… is focused on building up basic tools to make this process faster, cheaper and less research intensive, so that even the most sophisticated custom-built life forms can be assembled from a catalog of standardized parts: namely, connectable pieces of DNA called BioBrick parts, which snap together like Legos. Ideally you wouldn’t even need to know anything about DNA to manipulate it, just as a 5-year-old doesn’t need to understand the chemical composition of the plastic in his Legos to build a fortress on the living-room carpet…

Over the past five years, iGEM teams have been collaboratively amassing a centralized, open-source genetic library of more than 5,000 BioBricks, called the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Each year teams use these pieces of DNA to build their projects and also contribute new BioBricks as needed. BioBricks in the registry range from those that kill cells to one that makes cells smell like bananas. The composition and function of each DNA fragment is cataloged in an online wiki, which iGEM’s director calls “the Williams-Sonoma catalog of synthetic biology.” Copies of the actual DNA are stored in a freezer at M.I.T., and BioBricks are mailed to teams as red smudges of dehydrated DNA.

This is amazing. This catalogue of BioBricks is going to change the world. It is levelling the playing field for creating new genetically modified organisms, and consequently, it is going to allow creations that have only existed in our imaginations up to this point. And yet, we haven’t really had a proper conversation about what this means in moral and ethical terms.The science seems to have outpaced public policy on this issue.

Over time, this type of technology is going to become more and more common. The equipment will get cheaper. The number of BioBricks in the catalogue is going to explode. The number of people able to create new BioBricks will also explode. Many of them will want to use the technology for good. But not all of these people will have benevolent aims.  The problem is, this is a distributed technology– the strength of synthetic biology lies in its openness. Does this remind you of another technology that also grew like gangbusters?

As with the Internet, it’s clear that synthetic biology is a neutral technology– it’s up to humans to decide how it is used.

The rise of synthetic biology only intensifies ethical and environmental concerns raised by earlier forms of genetic engineering, many of which remain unsettled. Given synthetic biology’s open-source ethic, critics cite the possibility of bioterror: the malicious use of DNA sequences posted on the Internet to engineer a new virus or more devastating biological weapons. ETC Group, an international watchdog that has raised complicated questions about synthetic biology since its earliest days, also warns of the potential for “bio-error”: what unintended and unimaginable consequences might result from deploying all these freely reproducing, totally novel organisms into the world? What if those living machines don’t work exactly as planned?

“This absolutely requires a public and political discussion,” Thomas told me. “It’s going to change the alignments between very large corporations. It’s going to change the ownership and patenting of life forms. The field is growing at such a speed and industrial money is flowing into it at such a speed…

The amazing thing about synthetic biology is that it has clearly inspired a generation of new scientists. They are on the cutting edge of science. That is something that very few undergraduates could lay claim to, so I can understand their enthusiasm. I think the opportunities here are tremendous for young scientific entrepreneurs.

Still, the real legacy of iGEM may end up being the future synthetic biologists it is inspiring…. IGEM has been grooming an entire generation of the world’s brightest scientific minds to embrace synthetic biology’s vision — without anyone really noticing, before the public debates and regulations that typically place checks on such risky and ethically controversial new technologies have even started.

There is basically the equivalent of an internet boom that is just waiting to happen in synthetic biology. In a decade or so, maybe even less, you can say that you read it here first.

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