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Competing with evolution

Synthetic biology shapes our modern world

Correction appended on July 4.

Most of us remember Dolly, the world famous sheep, as the first mammal ever to be cloned. In research communities around the world, this achievement was applauded as a step forward in the name of science. To the population at large however, images of the man-made sheep served more as a catalyst for debate than an opportunity for progress.

Synthetic biology refers to an interdisciplinary field where engineering techniques are applied to the fundamental principles of biology to help solve real world problems such as energy production, food processes, climate change, and medicine. Although formal definitions of the term “synthetic biology” differ, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines it as (1) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and (2) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.

Breakthroughs such as Dolly and the more recent creation of man-made bacteria by Craig Venter, the first U.S. geneticist to sequence the human genome, have thrown synthetic biology under the public microscope. But this isn’t a first. Mankind has been genetically modifying plants and animals for a long time. Through farming and domesticating, we’ve encouraged the practice of selective breeding for thousands of years. Only recently has this process moved into the lab. Synthetic biologists have been able to enormously accelerate and influence the process of evolution by effectively taking genetic information associated with features deemed “useful” from one organism and encoding it to the DNA of another.

Ethical, social, and security concerns are an understandable response to this new ability to profoundly alter the building blocks of life. Rapid development of such a controversial technology has justifiably engendered a mixed response. The controversy surrounding the creation of life de novo in a petri dish has taken centre stage at many academic and government institutions in ongoing discussions over topics of intellectual property rights and regulation.

At the recent World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in Montreal, talks centred on the potential utility of such applications while also addressing the perils of synthetically creating organisms in a lab. The conference, held annually, brings together academics, industry leaders, investors, and policy makers to discuss the current state of biotechnology.

Jason Kelly, one of the five MIT PhDs who founded the start-up Gingko Bioworks, presented the appealing concept of organic circuitry. Organisms can be structured in a way to essentially emulate the functionality of an electric circuit. At Gingko Bioworks, the organism is the product. Organic circuits in bacteria are developed to perform predefined tasks, much like circuits are on computer chips. Gingko’s artificially produced bacteria are presently used to produce biofuels from materials that are plant-based. The company is currently working on bacteria that can detect nitrogen levels in the air and destroy plastics in an environmentally conscious way.

To understand the basis of synthetic biology, we can make an analogy to the automobile industry: a car consists of various components that can be tinkered with to optimize the vehicle’s overall performance. An organism contains different genetic parts that too can be altered in an effort to optimize its performance. Right across the Charles River from Ginkgo sits the MIT’s Standard Registry of Parts, a continuously growing database of genetic functional units that can be mixed and matched to build organic components. Like in any engineering process, such a modular approach allows biologists to use predesigned components as building blocks for new synthetic devices and systems.

According to sources such as the United Nations, by 2050 the world population is estimated to surpass nine billion people. Our energy needs are estimated to surge up fivefold. If this were the case, the entire U.S. reserve of petroleum today would last a mere six months. With this in mind, Jim Lane, editor of Biofuels Digest suggested that the benefit of synthetic biology lies in engineering organisms to supply our growing energy needs.

Canada is onboard with the idea of using synthetic biology to meet our energy demands. As of 2012, the federal government committed nearly 25 million dollars over a period of five years through the National Centre of Excellence (NCE) program to support and accelerate research, development, and deployment of advanced biofuels through the BioFuelNet Canada. The NCE programs are government funded academically-led virtual research networks mandated to solve critical issues affecting Canadians. Don Smith, a professor in McGill’s faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, was elected to lead BiofuelNet Canada. He predicts that within 20 years, 25 per cent of the fuels in Canada will stem from biofuels. As a matter of fact, BioFuelNet recently signed an agreement with Airbus and Air Canada to develop biofuels solutions for the aviation industry.

Presenting a more cautious vision at the conference, Edward You – from the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate – expressed his concern in the infancy of the field of synthetic biology and the need for well-established regulations. You highlighted that without a proper governing system in place, the tendency for misconduct is too high. In a 2006 investigative story by The Guardian, a reporter was remarkably able to order parts of the smallpox DNA sequence and have them delivered to his house. In another case, a Harvard graduate student claimed to be able to produce LSD from simple microbes found in ordinary baker’s yeast.

‘Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’ Adversaries to synthetic biology fear that playing God, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, may have dire consequences. They argue that it is important to have a distinction between life and non-life, natural and artificial.

While the future of synthetic biology may not be entirely certain, advocates and pessimists will both have opportunities to voice their opinions. What cannot be denied however is the potential such technology has to further research in fields such as medicine, food processing, and energy production – subjects relevant to everyone.

The article previously mistakenly stated that Craig Venter is the geneticist behind the Human Genome Project. In fact, he was the first to sequence the human genome independent of the project. The Daily regrets the error.