The basic impulse behind synthetic biology is one that human beings have been acting on for thousands of years: the desire to make living things serve our needs and desires better. We’ve domesticated animals, seriously altering their genomes and behaviours in the process, and turned wild crops into agricultural staples. Now, people aspire to use living things for all kinds of purposes: from synthesizing drugs and fuels to performing computations.
One of the most important developments of the Industrial Revolution was standardized parts. Originally used in firearms, having devices comprised of interchangeable components made maintenance and repair far simpler. Instead of having to make a custom widget designed to fit a particular machine, any standard widget of the right sort would do. To some extent, BioBricks are trying to do the same thing for engineered biological systems. Each consists of a DNA sequence held in a circular plasmid, with standard headers and footers. They include sites for enzymes, which allow the bricks to be chained together. Individual BioBrick ‘parts’ contain information such as how to code a particular protein. They are assembled into ‘devices’ that perform basic functions, and ‘systems’ that accomplish higher level tasks. MIT maintains a ‘catalog of parts and devices.’ There is even an iPhone application that allows the “review, annotatation, design, and implemention of standard biological parts.” An assembly kit adequate for 50 reactions can be purchased online for US$235.
One application of synthetic biology has been to make Amorphadiene, a chemical precursor to the ant-malarial drug artemisinin (mentioned here before). Producing the drug from the shrub in which it was discovered is expensive and tricky. As a result, annual demand far exceeds available supply. Producing it in engineered organisms could therefore make treatment more widely available. Amyris Biotechnologies, working with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has produced the drug using such an organism, and is hoping to have it on the market by 2012. The company’s founder hopes to eventually be able to synthesize any molecule found in a plant inside an easy-to-grow microbe.
Another mooted application would be engineering photosynthetic algae to produce and release oils, which could be collected and used as fuels. Such a process could be far more efficient than one based on growing conventional algae and then processing them for whatever quantity of oils they contain naturally.
Of course, synthetic biology does raise safety and ethical considerations. While I don’t think tinkering with genetic material is fundamentally morally different from cross-breeding plants or animals, there may be more danger of unanticipated consequences. Weighing the reality of that risk against the promise of what engineered organisms could do isn’t a straightforward task, especially in situations where the groups bearing the risk and receiving the benefits are not one and the same. Regulating the industry, and establishing legal precedents on things like liability, will be an important part of future policy- and law-making.