Synthetic Biology

Genetic engineering is out – today, it is synthetic biology that determines the image of the life sciences. Are we about to create life as if we were using Lego bricks?

Synthetic biology (SB) promises results that go even further than those of genetic engineering. It operates in dimensions that are otherwise only used in nanotechnology. Artificial genes are intended to function within a cell much like the software in a computer. The term synthetic biology is practically unknown among the public, but experts are already working on how to get public opinion on their side and on where development is going to go next.

Making organisms as if using Lego bricks

According to the Synthetic Biology Community, a group of US researchers, SB is about designing and constructing (genetic) parts, devices and biological systems, and re-designing existing natural biological systems upon demand.

The radical aim of researchers is to construct entirely novel organisms from scratch, or to re-design organisms for tasks that so far are impossible. To do so, biotechnology applies engineering principles known from chemistry or computer science. These principles are currently being tried out to produce specialised drugs or renewable sources of energy. As a first step, researchers recently synthesised an entire bacterial genome.

Computer science as the model

Synthetic biology mostly follows the approach of computer science. It starts from the idea that information encoded in the genome controls the living cell much like software controls a computer. Instead of tediously transferring single genes one by one, researchers intend to combine pre-fabricated and standardised genetic elements, i.e. pieces of DNA with defined functions, to suit whatever purpose they might have. This should serve to give (micro-)organisms entirely novel properties quickly and precisely.

These elements are intended to function like integrated circuits and, with tongue in the cheek, are often compared to Lego bricks. So far, however, only few of them exist, and not all work properly.

Between euphoria and utopia

The analogy to computer science suggests that the future of synthetic biology might be just as splendid as that of the computer decades ago. There is already a community of ‘hackers’ and also a disagreement over whether genetic elements should be patented or remain ‘open source’. If, however, the topic is referred to in the same context as genetic engineering, experts fear a new wave of resistance among the public. After all, the aim to create life and the acknowledged potential for misuse provide ample opportunities for attack.

Open questions

For good communication it is vital to discuss the most important issues, like we did with the SYNBIOSAFE project. In any event, protection must be provided against accidents and deliberate misuse, as must an adequate form of governance. In addition, account must be taken of ethical issues.

However, how should a debate on synthetic biology be conducted? Is the new field to be discussed in terms of computer science, using its concepts? Is nanotechnology the adequate point of reference .- or genetic engineering after all? Each possible perspective sends the discussion in a different direction. The result is still open.

Will we be able to construct life?