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Synthetic Biology: Potentially Useful, Weird or Creepy?

Posted on 22 June 2013 by Jerry

A lot of the language of synthetic biology is adopted from other fields, like engineering. This makes it difficult to understand.  It also masks from the rest of us what these experimenters are actually doing.  For instance, what are tunable mammalian oscillators, aptazyme-based riboswitches or double inversion recombination switches?

Rather than focus on developing new alien life forms, this article focuses on a different dimension of synthetic biology.  It deals with the development of predesigned genetic building blocks that use living cells to mimic existing functions that are performed today by common electronic components.  This assumes that someday scientists would be able to order synthetic genetic material from a catalogue for insertion, as a building block to create a new characteristic in a larger segment of genetic code or in a bacterium or another organism.

A report that originally appeared in the Oxford Journals in 2010 and was released by the National Institute of Health (NIH) hints at answers to the above raised questions.  “The challenges of informatics in synthetic biology: from biomolecular networks to artificial organisms” discusses the three challenges of synthetic biology in silico (in a computer), in vitro (in a test tube) and in vivo (as a part of a larger living organism).  See the link below.

Dissecting this phrase “tunable mammalian oscillators”, an oscillator is a familiar electronic device.  Wikipedia says it “is an electronic circuit that produces a repetitive, oscillating electronic signal, often a sine wave or a square wave.  Oscillators convert direct current (DC) from a power supply to an alternating current signal.”   Simple examples are a clock signal that regulates a computer and the sounds produced by electronic beepers.

In the animal kingdom a circadian clock (aka circadian oscillator) is just such a function.  Wikipedia says it “is a biological mechanism that oscillates with a period of 24 hours and is coordinated with the day-night cycle…. The clock is reset as the environment changes through an organism’s ability to sense external time cues of which the primary one is light.” In other words this is a function defined in the genes of a living cell or organism.

The synthetic biologist then seeks to transplant this capability via synthetic genetic material from one type of organism to another.  This could be a transfer to a new life form or figuring out how to devise a new tool that combines living tissue with inanimate components.

Imagine a future where once inanimate things now have living tissue; a personal computer that has living cells for its clock functions and that provide its memory?  How about asphalt streets that begin a self-healing function when a crack develops or a roof that contains living tissue that perspires when its temperature passes a certain point?  How about robots covered with synthetic tissue that look human (or cyborgs that are a self-regulating integration of artificial and natural systems known as Terminators)?

Beginning chimeric combinations such as these were described in an August 6, 2012 posting entitled “Chimeric Systems: Living and Non-Living Components”.  This article actually showed positive outcomes and hopeful research that could result from synthetic biology.

Do not misunderstand.  I do not oppose either genetic engineering or synthetic biology as potentially useful sciences.  I do think both areas copy that which was learned from observing the natural activities of bacteria and viruses.  I believe what was observed occurred in nature and consequently should not be patentable.

This would go a long way to slow the pace of both sciences by taking them out of the hands of entrepreneurs and putting them back in the hands of scientific researchers.  This would involve only a minor redefinition from what was unanimously defined in a recent Supreme Court ruling that a gene is not patentable. ( http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/slipopinions.aspx 6/13/13 Docket 12-398, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.)

I also take the position that both sciences are too dangerous to not have governmental oversight and regulatory restraints.  Today there is no one looking over either science’s shoulder to insure they are not endangering life.  I do not believe self-defined, voluntary industry rules governing experimentation protect us in either area.  Why do people wait until there is a disaster before taking steps to control that which is obviously dangerous?

Lest you think synthetic biology is some obscure science practiced by a few institutions, look at the following list of academic programs in synthetic biology across a whole spectrum of respected academic institutions in numerous countries.   See http://syntheticbiology.org/Graduate.html .

If you want an idea of who is heading these post-graduate programs or what they are working on, look at http://synbio.berkeley.edu/ or at http://bioengineering.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=277 .  If you ask what is in it for them, see our previous posting of June 13, 2012 entitled “Genetic Engineering Influence Peddling and Profit”.  This article illustrates how moving from academic institutions to government and back can benefit and how setting up profit making organizations along side a non-profit lab can be profitable.

Previous posts about synthetic biology looked at its attempt to create new alien living organisms (see 5/17/12 – Troubling Progress for Synthetic Biology and 12/2/12 – Synthetic Biology Continued: Risks or Benefits?).

Use the following links to obtain more information:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19906839 (Select “Free PMC Article” in the middle of the page to access the entire report.)

http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/electronic_oscillator

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/circadian_clock

http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~chongw/citeulike/docs/doc14956.html

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/slipopinions.aspx See 6/13/13 Docket 12-398, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.)

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/14/us/supreme-court-rules-human-genes-may-not-be-patented.html

http://www.dailycal.org/2013/06/19/uc-professors-express-mixed-reactions-to-supreme-court-ruling-on-gene-patents/

http://syntheticbiology.org/Graduate.html

http://synbio.berkeley.edu/

http://bioengineering.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=277

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