Most Americans may not be familiar with synthetic biology, but they may come to appreciate its advances someday soon. Synthetic biology focuses on creating technologies for designing and building biological organisms. A multidisciplinary effort, it calls biologists, engineers, software developers, and others to collaborate on finding ways to understand how genetic parts work together, and then to combine them to produce useful applications.
Synthetic biology is a relatively young field, begun only about ten years ago. But in that time, we have made some astonishing progress. This is due, in part, to the enormous improvements in our ability to synthesize and sequence DNA. But we’ve also gained a much greater understanding of how the various parts of the genome interact. We now can reliably combine various genetic pieces to produce a range of consumer products, from biofuels to cosmetics.
In medicine, the synthetic biology community is pushing the boundaries by designing microbes that will seek and destroy tumors in the body before self-destructing. Synthetic biology also provides us a way to clean up our environment. We can build organisms to consume toxic chemicals in water or soil that would not otherwise decompose, for example. It can also help us to better understand flu strains and create vaccines. Synthetic biology will even help us feed the world. At MIT, researchers are working to build a process that will allow plants to fix nitrogen. If successful, farmers will no longer require fertilizer for their crops.
That’s not all we’re doing with plants, either. At the Joint BioEnergy Institute in California, scientists have found a way to expand the sugar content of biomass crops to increase their density and decrease the cost of biofuels produced from them. We envision that eventually we will be able to build just about anything from biology. Don’t be surprised if one day your computer has biological parts.
The recently released National Bioeconomy Blueprint notes that the field is already making an important contribution to the U.S.’s technological innovation and will be a key to our shift to a bioeconomy, or economic activity powered by research and innovation in the biosciences.
We still have many challenges to overcome, but we have laid a very strong foundation for the field. We believe that one day we will be able to fully utilize biology’s manufacturing capability. As one of my colleagues, Harvard scientist Pam Silver noted, the field is poised to explode, both in terms of what scientists can accomplish and what the public realizes is possible.
A Significant Advancement
A landmark of synthetic biology will launch this spring. It is an anti-malarial drug made from synthetic chemicals, artemisinin. It’s an important event for those threatened by the disease; each year, malaria kills more than one million people and infects an additional 300–500 million people. That’s over seven percent of the world’s population.
Artimisinin is not a new treatment for malaria, but our ability to produce the substance in a lab is. Traditionally, the drug is isolated from a plant, Artemisia annua. But by moving production into the lab, we’re liberated from the vicissitudes of the plant’s growth cycle as well as the fluctuations in global supplies and prices. Artemisinin is a milestone in science, too. It represents a watershed moment in particular for the emerging field of synthetic biology.
Managing the Risks
Like many things we do, synthetic biology comes with risks, especially when it comes to safety and security. But consider this: We fly airplanes, we drive cars, we treat cancer with poison— all of these activities could be dangerous, but they also have benefits that far outweigh the risks. We believe this is true of synthetic biology as well. As Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, once said, “Synthetic biology is like iron: You can make sewing needles and you can make spears. Of course, there is going to be dual use.”
Here, I would say that synthetic biology has learned much from the past—at conferences such as Asilomar, we carefully considered how we can pursue our research responsibly. We work closely with regulatory agencies and adhere to our own institutional requirements. In fact, much of our work is with what are called Biosafety Level 1 organisms—the safest organisms known. We also have developed a robust partnership with the FBI to ensure that we are utilizing the best practices for lab security.
In addition to discussing approaches to risk and risk assessment, synthetic biologists are also working hard to minimize potential adverse effects. For example, Silver’s lab is working to create genetic self-destruct traits, termed “auto-delete,” as a way to ensure that genetically modified organisms don’t escape into the environment.
Along with the practical matters of safety and security, there are profound moral and ethical issues involved in our research. Many of us, especially our colleagues at the Hastings Center and the Wilson Center, are grappling with building a framework for all of us to use in our work. There are no easy answers, but I can assure you that we all want our work to benefit the public, solving global challenges, and making sure that we are well-equipped to live in the future bioeconomy.