For thousands of years, our species has invested its life in explaining observed phenomena, mainly in an effort for self-preservation. This insight has equipped us to make predictions and develop biological defenses, giving us the upper-hand against natural selection. It has also inspired seemingly far-fetched visions of how science will impact the future. And now, with the emergence of modern synthetic biology, we have arrived.
Suddenly we see our own kind crossing the threshold into the future, a place where that far-fetched imagination has become realized. And while those few who have managed to cross over haven’t ventured too far beyond the entryway, we can see a powerful horizon, full of opportunity.
ur excitement has quickly set us in motion. University of California, Berkeley established the Synthetic Biology Institute in 2010. PLoS ONE launched a synthetic biology collection. Reddit has a synthetic biology subreddit. A synthetic biology startup group exists on LinkedIn. There are several website, contests and conferences dedicated to enriching those in the field.
So what exactly is synthetic biology and why are people banking on it? It’s this broad, undiscovered potential that has caused debate about defining the buzz word. Over time, as the field of synthetic biology evolved, so too has its definition. But many are converging on the idea that synthetic biology involves an interdisciplinary effort to design and build biological systems or devices with intentional function.
Though its definition is neatly put together, the difficulty comes in classifying approaches and disciplines within synthetic biology. One approach is almost a cooking strategy where single cells can be pieced together from nonliving molecules, essentially from scratch. This bottom-up method prevents in vivo alteration, enabling researchers to study the origin of life and the basic functions of life.
The second approach is on the opposite end, taking the genome of an existing bacterium or cell and reducing it to its most fundamental characteristics of life. Here, in this so-called top-down approach, researchers can modify DNA sequences to enable a desired function.
These two tactics are easily classified, and luckily, they aren’t the only applications out there. If that were the case, synthetic biology would not be the hot topic that it is. In fact, there are several avenues for synthetic biology research that cannot be as easily classified as the first two examples. This makes it much more difficult to fashion a nice summary for the field, but it does makes it more interesting to explore.
Thankfully, the processes behind synthetic biology are cleaner than the definition, and easier to communicate. Using engineering principles, researchers in this field can think in terms of software (DNA) and hardware (the host cell), and they are able to take the scientific method even further. Now, principles of design, standardization, mathematical modeling and characterization are being fused into the overall process of scientific discovery and breakthrough.
By blending multiple disciplines together, we have found a way to carve out a world we always dreamed about. If you have a vision, it’s now possible to make it so by manipulating existing tools and coaxing the production of your design.
As a result of this multidisciplinary medley, we are exploding with ideas that become reality. For instance, a team from Johns Hopkins University successfully made a yeast chromosome from scratch, the bottom-up approach. This is the first time anyone has synthesized the chromosome of a complex organism. Harvard researchers see a possibility for baker’s yeast to produce lysergic acid, which is used in many medicines and is a precursor of LSD. Synthetic biology has enabled startups to design “bacterial robots” to clean water and produce energy. It is giving us the power to develop vaccines and other drugs at a much faster rate. And certainly our most favorite example is the Glowing Plant. Currently, they have been using synthetic biology to develop Glowing Plant Arabidopsis, but their vision is to naturally light the world at night with glowing plants and trees. They are our favorite because it is a true example of an ancestral pipe dream coming true.
Surprisingly, as futuristic and groundbreaking as this all sounds, the concept of synthetic biology is more than a century old, and the idea of modifying elements of nature to solve a problem has always been a consideration of mankind.
Jacques Loeb, John Butler Burke and Stephane Leduc were among the first well-known pioneers in the field during the early 20th century. And even more surprising is that their attempts at creating life from nonlife in the early 1900s were more successful than we would have thought.
The term itself was coined by Leduc in his 1912 publication “La Biologie Synthetique,” which was printed after his years of experiments growing several osmotic and crystalline “growths” in an attempt to illustrate that processes such as osmosis could yield forms with lifelike characteristics.
While Leduc wanted to understand the origin and composition of life, Burke set out to create life from nonlife. In 1905, it was announced that he, in fact, successfully produced cultures that were very lifelike. These creations appeared to grow and divide over days with the help of radium. Although they were unstable, the lack of stability in sunlight and water proved that these forms were more than bacterial contamination.
Of course, during that same era, fabricating life was not the only thing of scientific interest.
There was an even greater hope in designing a perfect race. The field of eugenics was blossoming, and to some extent the two fields overlapped. This is crucial to mention since humanity has also seen the disastrous implications of eugenics. And for a long time after its peak, it faded into the background. But as we embark on the promises of modern synthetic biology, we see some of its themes leaking out again and stirring ethical debates.
With every great breakthrough, a threat of corruption always exists. How far can we go with gene editing, which falls within synthetic biology? Should mankind really toy with creation? Are we smart enough to create without harming our new creations? Will we place the same value on synthetic life that we have for natural life? Just as Reddit is teeming with articles about synthetic biology breakthroughs, it is also littered with concerns over “designer babies,” genetically engineered organisms and “playing God.”
There is no easy way to answer ethical concerns. Education will certainly help eliminate fear of the unknown. This will also empower people to ask intelligent, convicting questions to ensure the field is refined and better regulated.
Still, as the wizards of life, we love to embrace the possibilities that lie ahead, and thankfully we have the lessons from the past to reflect on in an effort to improve the future rather than making the same mistakes. And we must, because our research is not only paving a beautiful future, it is giving closure to the unfinished investment of our ancestors before us.
Boldt, J. (2010). Synthetic Biology: Origin, Scope and Ethics. Center for Humans and Nature, Vol 3, Num 1.
Equinoxgraphics. (2012, Februrary 15). Creating life – The ultimate engineering challenge (Synthetic biology documentary) [Vide file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ushmgPM7HT8
Schmidt, M., Kelle, A., Ganguli-Mitra, A., Huib de Vriend. (2009). Synthetic biology: The technoscience and its societal consequences. Springer Science + Business Media, pages 7-10.
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"To understand the universe is to understand math." My 8th grade
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