Synthetic Biology: Scientific Advances Outstrip Policy Discourse

Posted by Pete Shanks November 7, 2013
Biopolitical Times

Synthetic biology has been attracting mainstream attention recently, most prominently in Foreign Affairs. The most significant advances, however, may not be the ones on which policymakers seem likely to focus. In October, there was a new indication of the practical power of the technologies being developed.

There are at least two broad schools of synthetic biology research that may lead to brand-new organisms. Until recently, the team headed by Craig Venter, the noted entrepreneur who made his name during the sequencing of the human genome, could claim to have the lead. But that seems to be changing.

Venter's team has been focusing on finding out how few genes are needed to make a workable organism. In May 2010 they announced what they called "the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell." Many critics complained that it was not strictly synthetic since the work relied on the cytoplasm of a recipient cell to get the process started. Venter is not worried about that, telling New Scientist recently:

We're not trying to recapitulate the origins of life. Obviously, life evolved from much simpler systems, but in terms of trying to get to the next stages of evolution that is not very useful. … Understanding what a basic operating system looks like is essential. Then, we should be able to add components to evolve it into a new species.

Teams led by Farren Isaacs at Yale and George Church at Harvard have taken a very different approach. Theirs is to make changes to an existing genome, such that the resulting organism has a fundamentally new genetic code, which would therefore produce new proteins. They succeeded (Science papers 1, 2) and managed to make multiple changes simultaneously. This is a potentially huge step in the direction of creating brand-new life-forms. Isaacs explained:

This is the first time the genetic code has been fundamentally changed. Creating an organism with a new genetic code has allowed us to expand the scope of biological function in a number of powerful ways.

As described in New Scientist:

The feat was achieved using a technique called multiplex automated genome engineering, or MAGE, which involves designing fragments of single-stranded DNA that, with the assistance of viral enzymes, would replace existing UAG codons in RNA with UAA when E. coli cells were zapped with electricity.

There are several potential short-term advantages to this process, such as making the new organism incompatible with wild types, so they theoretically could not escape from the lab. Church likes to stress resistance to viruses:

If we make a few changes that make the microbe a little more resistant to a virus, the virus is going to compensate. It becomes a back and forth battle. But if we take the microbe offline and make a whole bunch of changes, when we bring it back and show it to the virus, the virus is going to say 'I give up.' No amount of diversity in any reasonable natural virus population is going to be enough to compensate for this wildly new genome.

Isaacs speculates in a different direction:

These results might also open a whole new chemical toolbox for biotech production. For example, adding durable polymers to a therapeutic molecule could allow it to function longer in the human bloodstream.

Applications are of course some way off — but the technologies that allow precise, targeted alterations to existing genomes are developing fast. And in a general way, awareness seems to be growing.

The articles at Foreign Affairs are rightly concerned with bioweapons, crime, terrorism and accidents. (An overview by Laurie Garrett is reposted here and an article by Ronald K. Noble on "policing the new biological frontier" is behind the paywall here.) These are significant issues, but relatively easy to imagine: They are not truly novel. Yet the science really is pointing to new directions, whose implications imply vast disruptions to the economy, as well as to our entire relationship with the natural world.

There are dozens more signs of activity:

  • A recent article in the Washington Post described synthetic "bio-factories" (reprinted memorably in the Santa Fe New Mexican as "Creating life-forms: There's an app for that").
  • Venter has been talking up the emailing of novel vaccines in digital form.
  • The trade organization BIO is hoping for synthetic rubber and fuels.
  • Investment in commercializing these technologies is increasing, here and abroad.
  • Jay Keasling and others are looking to take over the spice trade.
  • Some artists are trying to use similar techniques.
  • Synthetic vanilla is on the agenda; Friends of the Earth and others are campaigning against it.
  • And, on a more hopeful note, a student project at the latest iGEM synthetic biology competition focused on the damage done to the field by gender bias.

The field of synthetic biology has been long on promise for a decade now, and relatively short on practical application. Meanwhile, regulators have barely begun to discuss how to conduct responsible oversight of these new technologies. If there is one single conclusion to be drawn from October's news, it is that we are running out of time.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: