December 17th, 2010
Posted by Shane Climie, Ph.D.
A recent article in The New York Times sheds light on concerns about synthetic biology, a field thus christened as the result of advances in DNA synthesis, bioinformatics, and protein engineering. In the article, journalist Andrew Pollack reports that President Obama’s bioethics commission found no need to temporarily halt research or impose new regulations on synthetic biology.
Synthetic biology – a new area of biological research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build novel biological functions and systems – has already been subject to much controversy and hype. Nevertheless, it is an area that holds great long-term promise for the creation of many novel human healthcare products: It is the ultimate realization of genetic engineering.
Synthetic biology is the result of a natural progression of protein engineering, rational design, gene synthesis, and heterologous gene expression work undertaken by many researchers as far back as the mid 80’s – by all measures, that work also qualified as synthetic biology. Those early genetic engineering technologies have been widely applied to create new drugs and other products via improvements in industrial enzymes and the refinement of biosynthetic pathways in various bacteria.
Today’s technology, however, takes us to a much higher level of sophistication, with the ability to synthesize and assemble entire bacterial or viral genomes. In some respects, there’s not yet a lot of design work being done, except to the extent that it is possible to assemble a feeble bacterium via the introduction of a synthetic chromosome into an empty bacterial cell from which the native chromosome has been plucked. In other words, we now have the ability to direct the synthesis of an entire organism using synthetic DNA. The first models lack the genes needed to produce useful healthcare or industrial products, but it is just a matter of time before we attain that goal.
While we are still going through a proof-of-concept phase, in which the foundation has been laid, I expect this will all change quickly. Now that the basic technology (i.e., the engineering) has been established, more interesting (architectural) work will start to emerge. We may not yet have the knowledge to fully design a workhorse bacterium from scratch, but clever minds will apply a combination of rational design, powerful genetic screens, and modern chemistry to attain such goals.
What makes this controversial is that the technology is so accessible: It is now studied and used by undergraduates and, in some cases, by high school students. After a predictable period of tinkering and refining, the ability to readily create the microbial factories that were envisioned (and sometimes feared) during the earliest days of recombinant DNA technology 40 years ago will be realized.
We are on the verge of some very interesting and important developments, so now is the time to weigh in and to think about the possibilities. Can you imagine where this area of science will take us? Do you have fears related to the technology and its implementation? Share your thoughts with us here.