Do-It-Yourself Genetic Engineering
February 10, 2010
Synthetic biologists want to break out of this cut-and-paste paradigm
altogether. 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.
Synthetic biologists imagine nature as a manufacturing platform: all
living things are just crates of genetic cogs; we should be able to
spill all those cogs out on the floor and rig them into whatever new
machinery we want. It’s a jarring shift, making the ways humankind has
changed nature until now seem superficial.
Ideally you wouldn’t even need to know anything about DNA to manipulate it.
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. 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
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.
The cost of synthesizing genes has dropped tremendously in the last
five years. (DNA is essentially an intricate chain of four different
chemical compounds, each represented by a letter; a gene can be
thousands of letters long. You can now send a sequence of those
letters to companies like Blue Heron Biotechnology, outside Seattle,
and get the actual gene back in the mail for a dollar, or less, per
letter.) Across the bay from City College, a University of California,
Berkeley iGEM team was building a piece of computer software that
allowed it to design genetic parts by dragging and dropping DNA
sequences together on the screen. Then, with the click of a button,
the software fed instructions to a liquid-handling robot in their lab
that executed various reactions and assembled each genetic part they
needed. It was like when you line up songs on iTunes and burn the
playlist on a CD. “We’re making way more DNA’s than we ever have
before, and we couldn’t have done it without the robot,” the Berkeley
team’s adviser told me.
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? “In a
way, you don’t have to have a working product to sell it,” says Jim
Thomas, a senior researcher at ETC Group. “You just have to have a
product that seems to work long enough to get into the open market.”
And, Thomas adds, as corporations continue to invest in organisms that
turn biomass into fuel or plastics, otherwise unlucrative crops will
suddenly be commoditized as feedstock for those synthetic organisms —
requiring more land to be cultivated and potentially displacing food
crops or people.
“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 — and here you have very excited,
smart, clever young people becoming wedded to these techniques. The
worry is, there’s not a lot of space left for reflection.”