January 13, 2013

Synthetic Biology

Wikipedia defines synthetic biology as "the design and construction of biological devices and systems for useful purposes." Not so simply put, our DNA is assembled from four base nucleotides that are paired together in millions of different combinations. Synthetic biology gives researchers and budding biological industrialists the ability to reshuffle those DNA nucleotides at a much faster rate than occurs in nature to produce combinations of genetic sequences that don't occur in nature. Better living things through chemistry. At least that's the theory.

The BioBrick Foundation offers standardized synthetic biological parts called biobricks that "constitute a free operating system for biotechnology." Think of this as Legos™ that you snap together to create life forms. If you want to see what's available, visit the BioRegistry site, a convenient one-stop shopping list of biological parts.

“We’re at the beginning of being able to design life in the way that we want.” This according to Pamela Silver, a biologist at Harvard Medical School and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. I don't know about you, but given mankind's track record, I don't know if we are quite ready to put our hands on the wheel of Mother Nature's engine of life.

Tom Knight, considered to be the "father" of synthetic biology, offered this soothing reassurance in an interview with Slate magazine: "Nature has the capacity to produce things far more dangerous than we can for now." Note the "...for now" part. Keep in mind that nature takes plenty of time to tinker with and perfect its processes. With synthetic biology, we can roll out prototypes in days. The only things that evolve as fast in the natural world are lethal viruses, not a reassuring analogy.

Ready to start on that DIY project to create the next new life form? There are firms out there that will mail order you custom-built genes for a couple of thousand bucks. DNA2.0 has a web site that offers free gene designer software to ''design sequences de novo without being limited by what nature can provide."

Okay, so I'm pretty freaked out. Once again, science is busily creating a brave new world right under our noses. Maybe I missed the memo, but I don't recall anyone asking me if I thought mass-producing new life forms was a good idea. While politicians fill the airwaves arguing over questions we already know the answers to, scientists go virtually unnoticed as they convert Mother Nature from the corner grocery store into WalMart.

Science continues to operate on the principle that if we can do it, then we might as well do it. What happens next is not their problem. To their credit, the thinkers behind synthetic biology seem to be genuinely aware of the ethical issues and the potential for harm their research holds. But like 3-D printing and self-organizing robots and chimeras, we barge ahead anyway, knowing there are bad actors out there who will pervert these inventions to lethal ends.

Curiosity is just too powerful a lure to resist. Of course if you are a cat, you already know where curiosity can lead to.

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