|Playing God |
Scientists are on the brink of creating the world’s first artificial life form – a living organism never before found in nature. They promise solutions to everything from malaria to climate change. Salvation? Or a step too far? By Hope Shand, Jim Thomas and Kathy Jo Wetter
Transgenics, the kind of engineering you find in genetically modified crops, is suddenly so last-century. As recombinant DNAsplicing techniques pass the 30-year mark, researchers are moving at breakneck pace to the next frontier in the manipulation of life: building it from scratch. Its called synthetic biology, and its poised to revolutionise our life sciences.
Under the paradigm of transgenics, genetic engineering was a cut-and-paste affair. Biotechnologists manually shuffled pieces of DNA the self-assembling molecule that instructs living organisms how to carry out every biological process between existing species. Over much of the past 20 years, genetic technology has focused on deciphering DNA code the sequence of base pairs that make up DNA's double helix in order to identify genes and understand their role in plant and animal life. As a result of this race to read and map genomes, it is now possible to decode, or sequence tens of thousands of base pairs per minute, and to do it relatively cheaply.
Synthetic biology represents a seismic shift in this landscape. Attention is being switched from reading to writing genetic code, with synthetic biologists beginning to scorn nature's designs in favour of made-to-order life forms. At the core of synthetic biology is a belief that life's components can be made synthetically (that is, by chemistry), engineered and assembled to produce working organisms.
Born in the dot-com communities of Boston and northern California, much of the vision of synthetic biology is articulated via computing metaphors. Using concepts borrowed from electronics and computing, synthetic biologists are building simplified versions of bacteria, re-programming DNA and assembling new genetic systems. DNA code is now regarded as the software that instructs life, while the cell membrane and all the biological functions within the cell are seen as the hardware that must be snapped together to make a living organism. Using gene synthesisers, they write the text of DNA code one letter at a time sometimes inventing their own alphabet to come up with new genetic networks bundled together in an artificial chassis a living, self-replicating organism made from scratch. The world's first synthetic biology conference, Synthetic Biology 1.0, convened in June 2004 at the University of California at Berkeley. Two months later, Berkeley announced it was establishing the world's first synthetic biology department. In 2005, three synthetic biology start-ups attracted more than US$43 million in venture capital, and in late 2006 there was talk of establishing an industry trade group for gene synthesisers. While most of the formal activity self-identified as synthetic biology has taken place on US soil, such extreme genetic engineering is happening all around the world. 2007's conference (SynBio3.0) will be held in Zrich, hosted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).
Millions of dollars of government and corporate funding are already flowing into synthetic biology labs. Venture capital and government funding have nurtured the field and the first pure-play synbio companies are now open for business. They hold growing patent portfolios and foresee industrial products in fields as diverse as energy production, climate change remediation, toxic cleanup, textiles and pharmaceuticals. Indeed, synthetic biology's first commercial products may be only a few years from market.
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