synthetic biology

How Synthetic Biology Builds New Life to Revolutionize Medicine, Energy, And More

Image courtesy of EarthSky.org, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Synthetic biology is the design and reconstruction of biological parts, devices, and systems. This exciting field, though only 12 years old, is growing rapidly with jarring future potential.

Broken down, synthetic biology means “fake life.” This may sound oxymoronic, but is a fairly accurate depiction of this type of science, which aims to artificially engineer life forms for human use by altering and rearranging genetic codes.

A lot of money has been poured into this combination of life science and technology: since 2004, investors have poured at least $1.84 billion into synthetic biology startups, not to mention millions more in research funds from the government, the Chronicle says.

In November of 2013, The Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) invested $16 million to fund UK startups dedicated to synthetic biology.

What can it do?

The extreme versatility of synthetic biology means that built or reconstructed organisms, even at the most basic cellular stage, could be used for a variety of purposes:

Medicine: Preventing and treating viruses and diseases

In October 2013, researches at Yale and Harvard successfully re-coded the entire genome of an organism in order to improve a bacterium’s virus resistance, according to a press release. published at Yale News.

This scientific achievement is a sign that cells can be reprogrammed to resist disease, which could mean a lot for human vaccinations and disease treatments.

Synthetic biology can also produce artemisinin, a powerful antimalarial drug, and extend its effectiveness. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the drug can be fermented through engineered microbes such as yeast simply and at low financial and environmental costs.

Researchers at MIT have also programmed synthetic cells that can determine if they’ve become cancerous, and if so, self-destruct.

Energy: Creation of sustainable biofuels

Synthetic biology can also create a new forms of energy if bacteria and enzymes are redesigned to extract hydrogen from water using photosynthesis. The creation of synthetic algaes could, in theory, produce 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre, according to the BioTechniques Journal.

Numerous synthetic biology startups are working with this mission in different variants, 12 of which Green Economy Post lists here.

For example, company LS9 has developed microbial cells that can convert renewable carbohydrates into two diesel alternative chemicals. These alternatives are non-toxic, inexpensive, and can be easily recovered at prices comparable to petroleum, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Manufacturing: Green products, chemicals, and food production

Synthetic biology is also playing an important role in manufacturing products – for example, rubber for tires comes from isoprene produced by rubber trees, which are a limited natural resource. Synthetic biology allows for the production of synthetic rubber via new genes optimized to produce isoprene artificially.

Companies such as Amarys use synthetic biology to convert plant sugars into molecules that can be used to produce a variety of normally petroleum-sourced products, from fuels, plastics, lubricants, cosmetics, to flavors, fragrances and more.

Scientists working with Modular Genetics were also able to engineer a microorganism to convert agricultural waste, such as the husks of soybeans, into useful green surfactant chemicals.

Synthetic biology could also clean up toxic spills and grow more photosynthetically efficient crops, which would increase yields to supply food for the rapidly growing population.

Potential risks

According to Bio.org, the sustainable chemical industry potentially has a market price of $1 trillion. But are there risks that come with man playing god by creating entirely new lifeforms? Where is the danger of Frankenstein in this equation?

Ethically, many are concerned synthetic biology is a “Pandora’s box” that could lead to unwanted consequences that come when scientists attempt to control nature. More substantial concerns are the possibility of bioterrorism (creation and release of super-pathogens to harm humans), biohacking, lab accidents, and release of synthetic organisms into the environment.

Fortunately, as the industry becomes more robust, protection against these threats will be fortified significantly, which will (hopefully) prevent the possibility of dangerous outcomes.

Originally published on November 25, 2013. 

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