Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is an emerging field focused on engineering new biological systems that do not already exist in Nature or redesigning existing systems from scratch. Scientists are working to build new life forms, assembling them from their fundamental chemical components. They are trying to use biotechnology to produce substances that are difficult to obtain by other means—medicines and fuels, in particular. Because synthetic biology brings together so many disciplines, some have hailed it as the genesis of the next Industrial Revolution.

How does synthetic biology work?

Synthetic biology combines chemical synthesis of DNA with growing knowledge of genomics to enable researchers to quickly manufacture catalogued DNA sequences and assemble them into new genomes. It has the potential to contribute to addressing grand societal challenges, such as in health care, environmental sustainability, scarcity of resources and energy security. But like any other innovations, synthetic biology is not without scientific risks. In addition, it may raise ethical and religious questions and concerns, since it allows mankind to put ‘life’ and ‘nature’ on the drawing board like never before.

“At its core,” writes Jacob Brogan in Slate, “it’s all about the selective assembly of genetic information. This is where the connection with computer science comes into play. Synthetic biologists aren’t just copying and pasting existing DNA from one place to another—they’re looking to figure out how specific sequences work and then putting them together into new configurations. The idea is that you can figure out what given segments of DNA [sometimes described as BioBricks] do and then patch them together, much as you would with lines of computer code, effectively programming cells to behave in new ways.”

What can we make with synthetic biology?

In theory, there are all sorts of things scientists who are expert in synthetic biology could build from BioBrick components, but in practice it’s incredibly hard. It’s such a new field that there is very little that’s come to market yet that’s specifically from what could be termed synthetic biology, although the lines between genetic engineering and synthetic biology are blurred.

Industrial biotech scientists and companies have been utilizing forms of synthetic biology for years, including gene splicing, metabolic engineering and directed evolution. Microorganisms that are engineered are used in closed fermentation vats to produce the end products desired. Improvements in the speed and cost of DNA synthesis are enabling scientists to design and synthesize modified bacterial chromosomes that can be used in the production of advanced biofuels, bio-products, renewable chemicals, bio-based specialty chemicals (pharmaceutical intermediates, fine chemicals, food ingredients) and products in the health care sector as well.

Scientists have studied the genomes of microbes to identify biological processes that can replace chemical reactions to make new products, cleaner manufacturing operations, and reduce the number of production steps. For example, by harnessing the natural power of enzymes or whole cell systems, and using sugars as the feedstock for product manufacturing, industrial biotech companies can work with nature to help us move from a petroleum-based economy to a “bio-based economy.”

In 2010, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) announced the world’s first synthetic life form; the single-celled organism based on an existing bacterium that causes mastitis in goats, but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was constructed from three chemicals in the laboratory. The single-celled organism has four “watermarks,” written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic. It took the Venter Institute 15 years to complete this initial project.

In 2013, a start-up promising to make glowing plants went on Kickstarter where it successfully raised $500,000. The promised engineering miracle never materialized, underscoring synbio’s technical challenges. The company now makes fragrant moss, and is still trying to address the technical challenges of making plants glow.

There have been some fantastical suggestions about combining tools from gene editing, cloning and synthetic biology to resurrect extinct species, such as the wooly mammoth. De-extinction would require collaboration from a number of different disciplines, connecting geneticists, molecular biologists, synthetic biologists and conservation biologists.

How is synthetic biology regulated?

Genetically enhanced microbes (GEMs) are regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act. The overall field of synthetic biology remains largely unregulated, however.
According to Slate, proponents of synthetic biology will tell you that we’ve been playing with genetics since the dawn of agriculture—and that new technologies simply allow us to do so with greater precision, care, and understanding.

The bigger issue may be that there aren’t clearly defined regulatory standards for synthetic biology. Drug and food safety regulations can still apply, but that’s mostly about how products created through these studies make their way to market—which is a long way off for most work in the area. Researchers have laid out possible regulatory models, but for now most norms are informal, if they exist at all.

An array of anti-biotechnology NGOs have demanded bans or sharp limitations on the emerging technology. In March 2012, over 100 environmental and civil society groups, including Friends of the Earth, the International Center for Technology Assessment and the ETC Group issued the manifesto, “The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology.” They called for a worldwide moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until more robust regulations and rigorous biosafety measures are established. The groups specifically called for an outright ban on the use of synthetic biology on the human genome or human microbiome.

Groups largely skeptical of biotechnology, such as the Center for Genetics and Society, wrote approvingly of the recommended restrictions, arguing for an imposition of the ‘precautionary principle,’ while industry groups and many scientists expressed concerns about attempts to heavily restrict a nascent technology. In 2009, a report by the Hastings Society, an independent bioethics think tank, argued for striking a balance between precaution and a “proactionary” stance that would try to fast track the science. A 2010 report from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues struck a somewhat similar stance by endorsing “prudent vigilance,” which the PCSBI said was “a middle ground” between halting the field entirely and “letting the science rip,” regardless of the likely risks.

Below is the complete archive of related articles sorted by date.

Refine Search in GLP Library
GMO plant emerges as drug incubator to fight malaria

GMO plant emerges as drug incubator to fight malaria

Scientists have discovered a gene that allows to double the production of artemisinin in the Artemisia annua plant. The artemisinin-based ...
Human skin, brain and bone cells grown on plants offer path for tissue implants

Human skin, brain and bone cells grown on plants offer path for tissue implants

To grow clusters of human stem cells that mimic organs in the lab and might be used someday in tissue ...
Heart-pounding vegetables? Heart tissue grown on spinach may lead to organ regeneration

Heart-pounding vegetables? Heart tissue grown on spinach may lead to organ regeneration

One of the biggest obstacles in the field of organ regeneration is scaling up production from tiny samples in a ...
Is it time to abandon the 14-day rule limiting human embryo research?

Is it time to abandon the 14-day rule limiting human embryo research?

[A] group of Harvard University scientists has published a paper arguing that it is time to reconsider the 14-day rule ...
'Live vaccines': Recoding bacteria's genome could lead to more effective immunizations

‘Live vaccines’: Recoding bacteria’s genome could lead to more effective immunizations

[G]eneticists used a new technique to recode 5 per cent of the Salmonella bacterium’s genome, introducing a record number of engineered ...
Future of milk? Genetically engineered yeast could replace cows

Future of milk? Genetically engineered yeast could replace cows

The latest new buzzword in food tech? Fermentation. And we’re not talking about the kimchi or kombucha kind. Rather, it’s ...
DIY DNA: Free online course teaches you how to make your own GMOs

DIY DNA: Free online course teaches you how to make your own GMOs

Have you found yourself sitting in your kitchen lately wondering how to make bread, cheese or yogurt? How about genetically ...
Genetic Literacy Project’s Top 6 Stories for the Week, March 19, 2017

Genetic Literacy Project’s Top 6 Stories for the Week, March 19, 2017

From this past week, here are the #GLPTop6 among many great stories on human and agriculture genetics around the world ...
Building synthetic life: Yeast experiments pave way for new drugs, treatments

Building synthetic life: Yeast experiments pave way for new drugs, treatments

The team that built the first synthetic yeast chromosome [in 2014] has now added five more chromosomes, totaling roughly a ...
'Speeding up evolution': Artificial yeast project could boost drug, biofuel production

‘Speeding up evolution’: Artificial yeast project could boost drug, biofuel production

An international team of scientists is closing in on its goal of replacing all the genetic material in a yeast ...
Genetic Literacy Project’s Top 6 Stories for the Week, March 13, 2017

Genetic Literacy Project’s Top 6 Stories for the Week, March 13, 2017

From this past week, here are the #GLPTop6 among many great stories on human and agriculture genetics around the world ...
Sickle cell cure? Patient in complete remission following gene therapy

Sickle cell cure? Patient in complete remission following gene therapy

A number of recent headlines imply a recent case study just published...proves that gene therapy has cured sickle cell disease—a ...
No egg? No sperm? No problem. First artificial embryo made from stem cells

No egg? No sperm? No problem. First artificial embryo made from stem cells

Using stem cells in grown-on 3D scaffolding in a laboratory petri dish, scientists have for the first time created an ...
Body parts from fruit? Skin grafts may use apples to grow human tissue

Body parts from fruit? Skin grafts may use apples to grow human tissue

Biophysicist Andrew Pelling of University of Ottawa wants to [use apples to determine] the future of biomaterials and human tissue repair.... “What ...
Return of the woolly mammoth and 3 other ways CRISPR could change the world

Return of the woolly mammoth and 3 other ways CRISPR could change the world

The woolly mammoth has been extinct for more than 4000 years. Now scientists are talking about bringing it back with ...
Human Genome Project 2: Should scientists synthesize entire human genetic code from scratch?

Human Genome Project 2: Should scientists synthesize entire human genetic code from scratch?

In May 2016, scientists, lawyers and government representatives converged at Harvard to discuss the Human Genome Project-Write (HGP-Write), a plan ...
How genetically modified microorganisms could help humans farm on Mars

How genetically modified microorganisms could help humans farm on Mars

[A]s NASA gears up to touch down on Mars, research is turning to how astronauts will produce what they need ...
Evolving immunity: Controlling obesity, mood with designer gut bacteria faces obstacle

Evolving immunity: Controlling obesity, mood with designer gut bacteria faces obstacle

Beginning in 2012, scientists discovered they could use CRISPR proteins to precisely edit the genomes of not only bacteria but ...
Evolution debate: Are humans continuing to evolve?

Evolution debate: Are humans continuing to evolve?

Is natural selection still a major force in human evolution? Or have vaccines, water purification, modern medical care and other ...
Zhang vs. Doudna patent ruling: Broad Institute holds patents but University of California may appeal

Zhang vs. Doudna patent ruling: Broad Institute holds patents but University of California may appeal

The US patent office ruled [Feb. 15] that hotly disputed patents on the revolutionary genome-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 belong to the ...
Proceed with caution: National Academies offers 'qualified support' for gene editing 'abnormal' embryos

Proceed with caution: National Academies offers ‘qualified support’ for gene editing ‘abnormal’ embryos

The door to gene-edited humans was opened a crack by a joint National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of ...
Synthetic conservation: Gene drives could revive extinct animals, protect endangered species, knock out pests

Synthetic conservation: Gene drives could revive extinct animals, protect endangered species, knock out pests

Scientists working in coördination with a U.S. conservation group say they’ve established an evolution-warping technology called a “gene drive” in ...
'Alphabet of life' expanded by 2 synthetic letters, may help make organisms 'Earth has never seen'

‘Alphabet of life’ expanded by 2 synthetic letters, may help make organisms ‘Earth has never seen’

Until very recently, life on Earth was dictated by strings of just four letters: G, A, T, and C...Deciphering nature’s ...
For people with congenital hearing loss, gene therapy successful in mice offers promise

For people with congenital hearing loss, gene therapy successful in mice offers promise

An improved gene therapy vector restores hearing and balance in genetically deaf mice, according to Boston's Children's Hospital researchers...[T]he mice's ...
Biodesign: Scientists team with artists to use synthetic biology in making everyday items

Biodesign: Scientists team with artists to use synthetic biology in making everyday items

Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing market, expected to reach $13.4 billion by 2019. Often called...biodesign, the field is increasingly ...
Health care, energy, food could be transformed by synthetic biology

Health care, energy, food could be transformed by synthetic biology

[Editor's note: Excerpts are taken from an interview with three experts in the field of synthetic biology: David Berry, general partner ...
Regrowing heart muscles without cancer risk, using synthetic stem cells

Regrowing heart muscles without cancer risk, using synthetic stem cells

A new revolutionary stem cell technique is being used to treat those suffering from damaged muscles without the cancer risk ...
Recreating nature: Building medicines and materials from 'unnatural proteins'

Recreating nature: Building medicines and materials from ‘unnatural proteins’

Over the last several years, with a big assist from the genomics and computer revolutions, David Baker, head of the Institute ...