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Synthetic Biology - A New Paradigm in the Biotechnology Revolution

Dr. Shantu Shantharam

Designed and custom-made living cells, biological molecules, and organisms are causing lots of excitement in the field of modern biology. After genetic engineering and transgenic organisms or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), “synthetic biology” is touted to be the next frontier in the field of new biology that is expected to revolutionize the future of life forms.  Venture capitalists are excited at new opportunities to commercialize synthetic biology. No doubt that there is already growing chorus of concerns and debate among scientists and civil society actors about where this new “synthetic” biology is going to lead us. 

Synthetic biologists are envisioning creating bacteria with artificial chromosomes to enable them to harvest sunlight into fuel, clean up industrial water and work as bio-surveillance agents to track all sorts of activities.  Craig Venter, a scientist entrepreneur and George Church of Harvard University are in the forefront of this scientific revolution called synthetic biology with which they would like to create single celled refineries and factories.  With oil energy crisis and consequent food crisis looming large all over the world, scientists are trying to create bio-energy companies and synthetic biology might be just the new technology to create new energy wave of the future.   Synthetic biology is still a nascent technology, but shows interesting potentials.  Synthetic biology is trying to build on more than three decades of the knowledge of new biology.  Synthetic biology is about putting together entirely different genetic circuits together in one organism to perform desired functions.  Creating life forms would certainly be a dream come-true for modern day biologists.  Although millions of years of evolution (nature) has put together quite a few excellent organism to carry out many useful functions and duties to keep this planet buzzing, that same nature has also not mastered efficiency and proficiency in all that it has accomplished.  This is where designing new organisms through synthetic biology comes into play.

Creating or synthesizing or putting together a new life form (basic cell) has been challenge to modern day scientists ever since Hargobind Khorana demonstrated in his Nobel Prize winning research in the early sixties in which he showed how nucleic acid chains (polynulceotides) could be chemically synthesized.   Khorana, being a chemist was only using his synthetic chemistry skills to synthesize a biological molecule.  Unfortunately, at that time Khorana’s short polynucleotide chain was unable to replicate for want of an enzyme.  Similarly, scientists have been synthesizing other major bio-molecules like proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and nucleotides for decades.  In more than one sense Khorana’s pioneering work laid the foundation for today’s synthetic biology in which scientists have been able to put together functioning basic cells for the first time in 2002.  Although synthetic biology is a new phrase used to describe designing cells, the basic principles of artificially creating biomolecules is not new.  So the modern day synthetic biology which is only about five years old is really not all that new.  However, the excitement lies in the potential application of synthetic biology that might change the future of life itself.  The proof of concept for synthetic biology, by way of assembling simple life forms like polio-virus and Vibrio bacteria have already been provided. 
Betting on the far reaching potential of synthetic biology, venture capitalists and scientists-entrepreneurs have started new biotech companies with the hope of delivering potential beneficial life forms that hitherto did not exist, but are needed to tackle humongous environmental challenges, food security problems and public health.

Next couple of years will witness new life forms being synthesized by the assembly of off-the-shelf spare parts.  Scientists will have “tool kits” to do synthetic biology.  The discovery of restriction enzymes and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) gave rise to recombinant DNA technology with which very sophisticated gene manipulations have been done to create transgenic or genetically modified microbes, plants and animals.  It is predicted that synthetic biology will aid in creating new life forms in biology, but will also be applied in electronics and nano-biotechnology.  With artificial intelligence (AI), modern electronics and bioinformatics thrown into the mix, there will be limitless possibilities of achieving scientific feats that scientists could only dream of. 

AI has been slow but its goal of creating intelligent machines (robots) with conscience will be ready by 2020.  Synthetic biology will catch up even faster.  Assembly of simple circuits using DNA fibers has been demonstrated.  This would pave the way for molecular sensors and molecular clusters.  If a bacterium can be synthesized with nano-circuitry, it will be a major breakthrough.  Scientists are already talking of hybrid life forms for application in environmental clean-up, bio-fuel manufacturing, and light-harvesting cells for electronic networking. 

All these wizardry of modern day biologists certainly raises certain safety related ethical and moral questions about the role of scientists in taking charge of future of life, and whether many of these altruistic changes are desirable.  Synthetic biology’s potential for solving some of the intransigent problems of the world must not be stifled, but certainly their potential to cause any harm must be examined very critically but scientifically.

When the science of synthetic biology starts really paying off, the political, ethical and environmental concerns will start sizzling.  When the newly created organism “synthia” becomes a reality, public will start asking certain demanding questions about its safety and impact on the environment.  Regulators will have to closely examine the potential risk and dangers of such organisms before they can be deployed in the environment.  Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), MIT and Venter Institute have released a 55-page report describing potential safeguards to be used that prescribes distribution of bio-safety manuals and registering DNA synthesizers under a regulatory umbrella. Thirty years of genetic engineering of microbes, plants and animals have happened without any deleterious effect, and there is all the confidence to believe that even synthetic biology will pass off safely.  However, caution is the byword, and everyone involved in developing the technology must take responsibility for their project, transparent about their research and development projects, and voluntary submit them for scrutiny.

First and foremost, scientists themselves must take the lead in asking hardnosed societal questions and try to provide convincing or satisfying answers so that the public does not get unduly perturbed.   Scientists have to become good communicators to inform the public.  From what we have learned about the needless politicization of GMOs, synthetic biology debate should not be allowed to be hijacked by any group or civil society of uninformed, scientifically ignorant, and politically mischievous people who revel in needless controversy and debate in perpetuity.

The first polio virus was synthesized by the SUNY-Stony Brook in 2002 by spending about $2000.00 and by ordering chemicals available in the market.  They downloaded the genetic blueprint form the internet and succeeded in it within a short order.  This demonstrates the ease with which people can synthesize live organism, and there is no doubt that this technology will undergo further development and become even easier to create life forms.  It will no doubt become a routine laboratory technique within a decade.

FBAE strongly supports research and development in synthetic biology to benefit the society. However, scientists must take lead in providing assurances to the society that their researches are not going to cause undue harm to the society at large.