The book of life on Earth is written as a four-letter scrabble. If we look at it, we see that life in a completely different organisms has the same origin and universal characteristics that share a common language – DNA. From bacteria to the blue whale, alphabet coding and DNA records are identical. But, these building blocks of life could be reprogrammed in a manner of a computer software. Scientific idea is that we can understand an organism only if we deconstruct it and re-assemble it again. For some, biology is only extended chemistry, and therefore synthetic biology falls under synthetic chemistry. Ultimately, biology can be used as a technology.
We breed some common spices for 10,000 years now, but it was not until the 1970s that we discovered the technology that gave us a clear indication of distinctions between individual species. In those years genetic engineering was born, but its real Renaissance is happening right now.
Synthetic biology is a new scientific field, an amalgam of biological research and technology, science and engineering. To put it simply: synthetic biology modifies existing and creates new living organisms previously nonexistent in nature.
Thanks to the synthetic biology, science fiction has never been more realistic
Researchers at UC Berkley and NASA agree that synthetic biology can provide an answer to prolonged space exploration and population of inhospitable moons and planets of our solar system. By using bio-technological production, future interplanetary travels would require up to 85 percent less cargo from what is now envisaged. This would improve design characteristics of the spacecraft, and significantly reduce costs of such expeditions. Scientists believe that specific type of microbes could transform elements, such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen from the Martian soil and the atmosphere to produce food, fuel, building material, even medicines for space travelers.
Creation of new and control of existing living organisms seems like something we see only in the movies, but, the fact is that synthetic organisms already exist in laboratories.We are already replacing fossil fuels mined from Earth’s bowels with synthetically produced ones. It takes nature several million years to dissolve organisms and turn them into precious oil. By using synthetic biology, we can do it in minutes.
Synthetic biology can offer new ways to fight the most severe diseases, such as cancer and malaria. In fact, this might be our most promising medical tool, since it has a capability to directly attack the source of the problem, be it deformed human cell, or a malicious microorganism, alter it, so it is less harmful, or even force it ‘to commit suicide.’ Today, scientists already possess experience in the field to build what geneticist Waclaw Szybalski named “new better control circuits” to execute specific commands, like:
• Tumor detected > Destroy
• Tumor not detected > Ignore
Apart from genetically modified rats, goats and pigs, these are some ongoing projects in synthetic biology you might find interesting:
• Researchers at MIT and ETH Zurich engineered logical circuits made of genes which can determine if the cell is cancerous, and eventually initiate its suicide.
• Scientists at NASA are working on a bio-program which could order the astronaut’s body to fight radiation when it is detected.
• At MIT, researchers led by Ed Boyden are on the way to help people suffering from epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease by manipulating modified nerve cells using light. This device could control activities of cortical nerve cells in patient’s brain, whose abnormal activity is held responsible for epileptic seizures.
As in nature, where countless organisms evolved from four simple building blocks of life, with existing natural genes and engineered ones, scientists have limitless options to explore.
“Even if the function of each part is known, the parts may not work as expected when put together,” argues Jay Keasling, a synthetic biologist.
So, if we are able to instruct our body to destroy cancer cells, then a malfunctioning program can direct them to multiply. Are we ready to begin human trials yet?