Synthetic life

Source: The New Yorker
If the science truly succeeds, it will make it possible to supplant the world created by Darwinian evolution with one created by us.

The first time Jay Keasling remembers hearing the word “artemisinin,” about a decade ago, he had no idea what it meant. “Not a clue,” Keasling, a professor of biochemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, recalled. Although artemisinin has become the world’s most important malaria medicine, Keasling wasn’t an expert on infectious diseases. But he happened to be in the process of creating a new discipline, synthetic biology, which—by combining elements of engineering, chemistry, computer science, and molecular biology—seeks to assemble the biological tools necessary to redesign the living world.

Scientists have been manipulating genes for decades; inserting, deleting, and changing them in various microbes has become a routine function in thousands of labs. Keasling and a rapidly growing number of colleagues around the world have something more radical in mind. By using gene-sequence information and synthetic DNA, they are attempting to reconfigure the metabolic pathways of cells to perform entirely new functions, such as manufacturing chemicals and drugs. Eventually, they intend to construct genes—and new forms of life—from scratch. Keasling and others are putting together a kind of foundry of biological components—BioBricks, as Tom Knight, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who helped invent the field, has named them. Each BioBrick part, made of standardized pieces of DNA, can be used interchangeably to create and modify living cells.

“When your hard drive dies, you can go to the nearest computer store, buy a new one, and swap it out,” Keasling said. “That’s because it’s a standard part in a machine. The entire electronics industry is based on a plug-and-play mentality. Get a transistor, plug it in, and off you go. What works in one cell phone or laptop should work in another. That is true for almost everything we build: when you go to Home Depot, you don’t think about the thread size on the bolts you buy, because they’re all made to the same standard. Why shouldn’t we use biological parts in the same way?” Keasling and others in the field, who have formed bicoastal clusters in the Bay Area and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, see cells as hardware, and genetic code as the software required to make them run. Synthetic biologists are convinced that, with enough knowledge, they will be able to write programs to control those genetic components, programs that would let them not only alter nature but guide human evolution as well.

No scientific achievement has promised so much, and none has come with greater risks or clearer possibilities for deliberate abuse. The benefits of new technologies—from genetically engineered food to the wonders of pharmaceuticals—often have been oversold. If the tools of synthetic biology succeed, though, they could turn specialized molecules into tiny, self-contained factories, creating cheap drugs, clean fuels, and new organisms to siphon carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In 2000, Keasling was looking for a chemical compound that could demonstrate the utility of these biological tools. He settled on a diverse class of organic molecules known as isoprenoids, which are responsible for the scents, flavors, and even colors in many plants: eucalyptus, ginger, and cinnamon, for example, as well as the yellow in sunflowers and the red in tomatoes. “One day, a graduate student stopped by and said, ‘Look at this paper that just came out on amorphadiene synthase,’ ” Keasling told me as we sat in his office in Emeryville, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. He had recently been named C.E.O. of the Department of Energy’s new Joint BioEnergy Institute, a partnership of three national laboratories and three research universities, led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The consortium’s principal goal is to design and manufacture artificial fuels that emit little or no greenhouse gases—one of President Obama’s most frequently cited priorities.  Read more 


Craig Venter is the founder of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). Craig Venter and team make a historic announcement: they’ve created the first fully functioning, reproducing cell controlled by synthetic DNA. He explains how they did it and why the achievement marks the beginning of a new era for science.


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