Genetic engineering – the next generation

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Genetic engineeringIn the past genetic engineering has arguably just been a cut and paste job, take a gene or two from one organism put it into another and observe. Whilst this technology has served us incredibly well, producing everything from insulin to glowing mice (not to mention a little controversy), we are on the precipice of change. Increasing DNA sequencing and artificial DNA synthesis efficiencies are giving way to an emerging interdisciplinary field, with a radically new perspective – Synthetic Biology.

Whilst difficult to neatly define, Synthetic Biology broadly encompasses much more ambitious genetic manipulations of life than attempted in the past. It does this using approaches which involve the application of engineering and computing principles to cellular function. The former refers to the standardisation of biological parts, so called BioBricks. These are publicly available DNA sequences coding for predetermined, supposedly compatible, functional cellular components (e.g. a specific enzyme). The growing pool of BioBricks represents a repository of interchangeable functional modules. These can then be combined by the user to form new metabolic networks, of defined function, in their “chassis” of choice (usually E.coli). The potential applications of this form of Synthetic Biology are wide ranging, as best exemplified by the annual iGEM competitors. iGEM, the international genetically engineered machines competition, is an undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition (peculiarly Oxford doesn’t have a team) which has been running since 2004. One of iGEMs main aims is to promote advancements in Synthetic Biology by challenging teams to engineer organisms with novel functions, by creating new or using available BioBricks. Such endeavours have produced the aptly named E.chromi and BactoBlood, both derived from E.coli. The former is a biosensor derivative which changes to a variety of colours in response to local concentrations of a given inducer. The latter is a potential blood transfusion substitute, in which E.coli has been engineered to carry oxygen (i.e. produce haemoglobin) in the bloodstream whilst not inducing any complications (e.g. blood poisoning).

However, iGEM represents only the tip of the Synthetic Biology iceberg with more extreme genetic manipulations with even more ambitious applications in the pipeline.  These are coming from Synthetic Biology’s visionaries such as Craig Venter and Harvard’s George Church. Among his many projects which include synthetic bacterial fuel production and increasing the efficiency of algae photosynthesis, Venter (an American biologist come entrepreneur) is working on synthetic genomics. This involves synthesis and introduction of artificially, computer designed, genomes into bacteria. Not only do these synthetic genomes represent the largest DNA molecules artificially produced to date, Venter is hoping to use them to create the first “synthetic” organism. To be aptly named Mycoplasma laboratorium, this organism is designed to be a genetically streamlined version of the bacterial parasite Mycoplasama with all non-essential genes removed. This minimal genome is then hoped to act as default genome upon which further engineering can occur. Even further in the future, Venter envisages the rise of the digital biological converter or “3D printers of life”. These are hypothesised desktop based genetic engineering devices which utilise life as a manufacturing station. The device would reliably engineer bacteria for the production of various chemical compounds, medicines and fuels. The applications of such technology could be used in the rapid distribution of vaccines in pandemics preventing large scale human suffering. The genomic engineering or “instructions” required to achieve this could be sent in electronic form and then genetically inserted into the bacteria using the converter and the subsequent vaccine extracted.

Whilst many of the applications of Synthetic Biology seem quite far-fetched today, it is easy to see that the advancement of this novel field has the potential to revolutionise many aspects of human civilization; especially in the healthcare and energy sectors. As with genetic engineering before it, the ethical implications of Synthetic Biology need careful consideration. One can only hope that this time round the ethics and the science develop together, rather than at different rates.

PHOTO/ Microbe World

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