Extreme Genetic Engineering: Synthetic Biology

Melissa Frick


While reading the article “Breeding the Oil Bug,” a piece about the potentials of synthetic biology and biofuels, I came upon a quote that hooked me, “we don’t have to rely on what nature gave us.” As contradictory as that sounds, this line implied that we no longer need to depend on nature; it persuaded me to look further into the newfangled topic of synthetic biology.  The core belief of synthetic biology is that all parts of life can be made synthetically by chemical means, engineered and assembled to produce working organisms. It can often be compared to a computer; DNA is the software that instructs life and the cell membranes and all biological machinery are hardware. Whereas “genetic modification” was the cut-and-paste operation of a word-processing document, synthetic biology is the actual construction of a sentence, paragraph, and chapter, written letter by letter. So far, the research behind this technology has brought even further innovation to genetic technology because scientists have even begun to create and use new nucleotides outside of what nature gave us; adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine have been now been joined with man-made nucleotides titled "X," "K," and "F." Scientists have also created new polymerases and new protein structures (PNA) to create a completely artificial replica    of natural phenomena. Our discussion deeply covered all aspects of this course- human nature, technology, and the environment- and how all of them are so finely linked and interrelated, especially on the topic of synthetic biology


Technology has been around since the apes decided to use a stone to crack open a coconut or when hunter-gathers domesticated the power of fire. We, just like them, have had an innate drive to naturally adapt those technologies once we have discovered their uses; synthetic biology is no different. Many of those who oppose synbio say that the potential for bioweapons or destruction of the natural environment is too prevalent to continue research. Part of the human condition opposes this idea because once an idea or innovation has diffused into some part of our culture; we will not let it go. So to speak, “the genie is out of the bottle,” and there is no way we can get it back in. Instead, we have to prepare ourselves for such a radical technology and harness it in a way that it won’t get out of control.

Another topic of discussion revolved around the theoretical prevalence of synthetic biology in the future and what that could mean. Scientists have already begun to predict that the price-per-base will decrease significantly to fractions of a cent as the accessibility of such technology increases. This is much like the pattern we have seen with computer technology; the price of technology has fallen as the memory capacity and speed of computing technologies has skyrocketed. Since the synthesis of this new DNA can be controlled by a simple computer program, people don't even need a deep understanding of DNA or genetics to create their own organism. Without an understanding of the topic, people will be without respect for the gravity of such an experiment. DNA is essentially the language for life; if people are able to tinker with it without actually realizing the power they have in their hands, there is the potential for serious consequences. On the other hand, there are many biologists who have a true curiosity for this process and can be trusted with the technology.

In regards to nature, a quote taken from Extreme Genetic Engineering raised a great point to reflect on, "We're not trying to imitate nature, we're trying to supplement nature. We're trying to expand the genetic code." This scientist is almost proposing a revolutionary expansion upon the nature that has existed with and without us for the past millions of years - synthetic biology can be the upgrade to "Nature 2.0." The promises of this upgrade is that the organism can be created to already be adapted to its environment, have immunity to dangerous disease, and have all favorable characteristics chosen for it. This Nature 2.0 is faster, more efficient, and can produce many more organisms that Nature 1.0 can. Yet, just like any computer expansion pack, one doesn't always know the reliability of the new version but they know they can trust the dependable older version. Why try to change something that has stayed relatively stable for the past millions of years? Also, who is to say that these synthesized organisms will react the same way as the natural organisms? Another question brought to the forefront of this revolutionary process which allows us to create life is whether or not we have surpassed Darwin's evolutionary forces. We may no longer need to rely on the old standard of "survival of the fittest" in the sense that those people predisposed to die from genetic diseases, such as diabetes, may be saved by a protein synthesized by synthetic biology.

There has been the assumption in human nature that we are becoming more and more aware of our environment and maybe one day we will completely understand the world around us with the ability to solve any problem. Yet is our awareness increasing as fast as our environment is changing? It is impossible for us to grasp the complexity of the world around us and as we continue to create ways to understand the environment, we are creating ways for the environment to change. Synthetic biology may and can lead to a more stable ecosystem but that creating a stable, stronger ecosystem could lead to problems we would never expect; thus, another hurdle to jump. This assumption is one of our fallacies but it is also what drives us to continually search for means to an end through technologies such as synthetic biology.  We cannot predict the consequences of synthetic biology especially when we are dealing with something so non-linear and variable as genetics.

Many articles have discussed the great potential and great danger of genetic engineering. Just like any technology, we are at the tipping point of either suppressing it or letting the technology go free. One of our most dominant characteristics as a human species is foresight; yet even though we are able to roughly predict what will happen in the future, we often fail at restraining ourselves - especially in the face of promising technologies. The question is: can we or should we stop our technological feats? The overwhelming consensus is that we cannot stop this technology (or any other in this case) from diffusing into the scientific society or even normal-day life. This does not mean the technology has to run rampant though. If policies are set in place to ably guide synthetic biology through a safe and regulated environment,  a " Jurassic Park" situation nor and everyday 'tinkering' have to pose a threat. There was agreement that synthetic biology should not be self-regulated solely by biologists or computer programmers (because a majority of those using synthetic biology where not biologists, in fact, they were computer-programmers). Instead, a diverse and equally empowered group should decide upon the boundaries and regulations for this growing industry. Scientists, economists, environmentalists, and even the average person should participate in the democratization of this industry so everybody is not only educated about this revolutionary technology but that they can also enhance the potentiality of the industry and repress the dangers.


Presentation Resources:

Video: How to make man-made DNA come alive - 60 Second Science
A very brief introduction of designer genomes.
"Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology." ETC Group, January 2007.
Found at:  http://www.etcgroup.org/upload/publication/602/01/synbioreportweb.pdf
Pages 13 - 44. Any other pages in this pamphlet are not required, but give a further introduction to synbio and provide interesting points.
Breeding the Oil Bug. From PopSci.com:
Scientist Creates Life - Almost. From Time Magazine:


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last updated 5/1/08