Synthetic Biology Explained


After ten thousand years of genetic
manipulation by selective breeding humans finally gained direct access to the genetic code Deoxyribonucleic acid D-N-A. Since then we’ve cut and pasted it photocopied fragments of it en masse, sped read it was sequences printed out the code letter by letter in
the lab modeled it on computers and measured it with microscopes. For forty years now we’ve called this work
genetic engineering the trouble is that while there’s been
an extraordinary amount of genetic discovery in manipulation there’s been precious little engineering engineers are frustrated by genetics
and molecular biology. The experiments are too slow the complexity to messy and growing more so all the time and there’s a frustrating lack of
standardised components. They’d like to do to genetic engineering
what engineers and done since the stone age: collect, refine and repackage nature so that it’s easier to make new and reliable things. Engineers want to treat DNA more like a
programming language – instead of one’s and zero’s, ‘A’ ‘T’ ‘G’ and ‘C’. They want to use DNA to write simple
Lego like functional components inspired by, but not found, in nature and then run them in a cell instead of the computer. The only difference is this software builds its own hardware. They call this re-engineered genetic
engineering synthetic biology Nowadays rather than cut and paste the
DNA sequence out of an organism and into another you can, if you know what you’re doing, just type your DNA sequence into a
computer, or copy it from a database, or even select
it from a growing component catalog and then you just order it over the
internet. Yes really. The DNA sequence may be copied from nature
but the DNA itself is made by machine. It’s synthetic. The raw material for synthesizing DNA
is sugar. Twenty five dollars of which will buy
you enough to make a copy of every human genome on the planet. The chemical letters are fed to the
DNA equivalent of an industrial inkjet printer. In goes your sequence information and out comes DNA. At a cost of less than forty cents per
base pair and getting cheaper all the time. It’s then freeze-dried and shipped to your door. Already engineers have assembled an open
source catalog of over five thousand standardised components called BioBricks. At an annual worldwide do-it-yourself
competition university students build new and more
complex BioBricks, string them together and then run them inside a much studied
intestinal bacteria: E.-coli. Sure they’re toy projects with shoe string
budgets but the results are impressive. E. Chromi: a sensitivity tuner and
colour generator is programmed to turn one of five colors
when it detects a certain concentration of an environmental toxin. E. Coliroid is a bacterial system
which switches on and off in response to red light and acts like a bacterial Polaroid camera. Groups with more time and a lot more
money are writing, or as they say in computer
programming refactoring, whole systems. Jay Keisling chemical and biological engineer and his team at UC Berkeley have built and continually refined a new metabolic pathway in yeast by assembling 10 genes from three
organisms in an attempt to produce synthetically the antimalarial drug Artemisinin, and to do it cheaply enough to treat up
to two hundred million malaria suffers each year. Biotechnology pioneer Craig Venter has gone even further. His team has entirely replaced the DNA
of one bacterium with the syntehtic copy of DNA from another naturally occurring species, and added a few extras like their email
address. This wasn’t creating life it was testing
just how reprogrammable a bacterial cell can be. An important step if we want biological factories which
can be tasked to make many things liked vaccine, medicine food and even fuel. In the last ten thousand years genetics
has taken us from gathering seeds to manipulating DNA. An engineering has taken us from rocks and
caves to hand-held computers and skyscrapers. We can only guess what the two working
together as synthetic biology may help us to cheap in the future but
the possibilities are breathtaking: Engineering algae that can eat climate changing
carbon dioxide and produce less polluting biofuels. We might do away with both liver and
kidney transplants and instead use a vat grown all-purpose
biological sieve organ called a kliver. We could can change the nature of
construction, architecture, urban planning, forestry, and even gardening with a seed that can grow into a house, or even return life to a whole planet by terraforming the long dead Mars. Til then synthetic biology advances project
by project As Drew Endy, the civil engineer turned
synthetic biologist says: “Testing of understanding by building is
the shortest path to demonstrating what you know and what you don’t.” In so doing Synthetic biology is already
paying dividends by simultaneously expanding and testing our knowledge of cellular function.

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