Science | Comment – Is synthetic biology playing God?

Synthetic biology is the power of creating artificial life. The application of engineering tools and design principals allows passionate scientists to construct novel biological systems, enhance existing organisms and direct subsequent cellular processes. Think of it as “life engineers”, calculating and designing the reproducible. Thus, in the company of synthetic biology, scientists can superficially create and control cells to satisfy their needs; it remains somewhat arbitrary whether their ambitious modifications will ensue planetary utopia or dystopia.

The modern success of synthetic science can be accredited to the pioneering work of Craig Venter, who, in 2000, led the the first ever sequencing of the human genome – the blueprint that illustrates everything you are made of. A decade later, his team created the first synthetic organism by inserting man-made DNA into a bacterial cell. Furthermore, Venter and co. have birthed this new organism based on an existing bacterium that causes breast tissue inflammation in goats. This biogenesis has a completely synthetic genome core and solely consists of chemicals constructed in the laboratory.

The reality, of living in a coded, data-designed, technological world, offers tremendous potential to enhance all of our lives. Tittering with more human manipulation, the draw-board vision inks worldly humanitarian efforts: accelerating vaccine production, churning out biofuels and introducing an atmospheric detox by removing carbon dioxide. Crucially, this begins with bacteria.

Humans have more bacterial cells in our bodies than we do our own. Using tools to exploit our knowledge, we can, theoretically, mould bacteria into what we want. At present, the common gut bacterium Escherichia coli, is the most popular subject and who, thanks to scientific engineering, is now able to ‘see light’ by switching states in response to red wavelenths. Furthermore, in the medical field, researchers, in true spirit, are engineering bacteria that literally attack other bacteria, offering prospective to treat infections. Pivoting new work by scientists at Yale and Harvard, published this month, has rewritten the genetic code of E.coli; further work now hopes to use the E.coli subject as a living workshop, to manufacture new classes of molecules. Building on this foundation, the dream is to use these molecules to generate novel materials, nano-structures and therapeutics, as stated by Farren Isaacs, of Yale University.

Alas, with every quality proposal, petty offers present themselves. Hereby, ethical dilemmas reemerge, with a South Korean company, Sooam Biotech, offering British dog owners the chance to play pet-god, by paying to clone their pets. In accordance, considerations and questions must be asked before toying with nature. Nonetheless, substantial efforts, like those linking synthetic biology and conservation, are offering solutions to our environmental woes, such as eliminating species’ extinction. Naturally, whereby species’ coexist, a carefully managed planet, consisting of all biological components in place, could envisage a conserved world. In the succinct sense, synthetic biology has revolutionized the essence of experimented life: with computer tools, scientists can now orchestrate existence. Life is a DNA software system.


Sofia Popov

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