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See Inside February 2010

Life from a Test Tube? The Real Promise of Synthetic Biology

Scientists are closing in on the ability to make life from scratch, with potential consequences both good and bad



Matt Collins

I have seen the future, and it is now.

Those words came to mind again as I recently listened to Craig Venter, one of those leading the new areas of synthetic genomics and synthetic biology. Every time I hear a talk on this subject, it seems a new threshold in the artificial manipulation and, ultimately, creation of life has been passed.

Consider just some of the progress associated with the J. Craig Venter Institute. In 2003 its researchers created a synthetic version of the bacteriophage phiX174. In 2007 they successfully transformed one species of bacteria to another by genome transplantation. Most recently, they developed methods for the complete synthetic assembly of the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium.

The techniques now developed make the feat of sequencing the human genome in 2001 seem prehistoric. Not only have the cost and speed of sequencing evolved faster than those of computer chips, but the ability to use both chemistry and biology to synthesize new complex organisms has undergone a revolution in the past five years. Instructions embedded in synthetic gene sequences can now be implanted in foreign cells and thereby cause those cells to express proteins; those proteins, in turn, build new functioning copies of the life-forms whose instruction manual is in the embedded sequences. Venter calls this cycle “software that creates its own hardware.” I expect to hear news soon of the successful creation of the first completely artificial life-form, built from scratch and not alive until the scientists assembled it.

Semiconductor nanotechnology has been heralded for more than a decade, but I believe it will pale beside the ability of biotechnology to transform life and society. Imagine the impact of piggybacking on nature’s majesty and designing living systems that can perform tasks not found in nature, from microbes that make gasoline or eat carbon dioxide to create nonbiodegradable plastic building materials to organisms designed to surgically and strategically operate on cancer cells. I expect that within 50 years the world’s economy will be driven not by computer-generated information but by biologically generated software.

Of course, as Spiderman would say, with great power comes great responsibility. Hackers now create software viruses that periodically disable huge computer networks. With the ability to make DNA sequences to order has risen the specter of garage-based DNA hackers who might terrorize the world—intentionally or accidentally—by re-creating the Ebola virus or the 1918 flu. Each of those disease organisms has a genetic code far smaller than that of the recently synthesized M. genitalium. One could also imagine producing, again perhaps unwittingly, viruses that are immune to existing vaccines.

Some may fear the existence of new life-forms that might attack all life on earth or at least human life. This fear is probably misplaced. Life has survived for more than three billion years because it is robust, and almost no mutations can easily outwit the defense mechanisms built up through eons of exposure to potential path­o­gens. Venter’s argument that new naturally emerging diseases are a far greater threat than new artificial diseases seems relatively compelling.

Nevertheless, there have been, until fairly recently, few checks on the unfettered reproduction of genetic information. As the ability to synthesize more complex biological systems has increased, however, the research community has put in place a voluntary system of restrictions, for example, on the fulfillment of commercial orders for genetic sequences that correspond to portions of potentially lethal organisms. At present, the technological know-how associated with developing synthetic biology laboratories with malice aforethought is probably beyond the means of even sophisticated terrorist networks. Moreover, it is important not to let misplaced fears of Armageddon unduly restrict scientific work with great potential to benefit humankind.

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