Synthetic biology (SynBio) at its core is a meeting of minds between engineering and biotechnology. Researchers working on SynBio aim to understand how life starts by studying DNA engineering; that is to say, how to write and program DNA in order to create novel organisms. This tool could be used in medicine to develop vaccines and make cancer cells self-destruct said George Church, Professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, US, in 2010.
While traditional genetic engineering is a matter of cutting and pasting gene-parts from one organism to another, synthetic biology engineering is able to write an entire genetic code. SynBio researchers use online databases of genetic codes to put together genes and gene-parts via computer modelling. They design and synthesise a genome instead of adding a foreign element to an existing organism.
There are specific fields SynBio is expected to revolutionise: pharmaceuticals, chemicals, energy and agriculture. In agriculture, improved plants and seeds could be developed to survive difficult weather, disease and pests; requiring less land and water.
It would also help farmers increase their yields and ensure less carbon dioxide is emitted from farming practices; providing better food security and nutrition for people. In 2012 an article in the journal Nature reported that synthetic biology can help to save endangered species and potentially revive extinct ones. Scientists already produce stem cells for animal embryos using frozen cells collected from endangered species of rhinoceroses, monkeys and snow leopards. Some scientists believe that SynBio could be able to engineer seeds that would grow into a full grown tree in the shape of a house; this concept of ‘bio-buildings’ would have major consequences on fields as far reaching as construction, architecture and forestry.
There are always risks – both imagined and real – associated with any type of innovation. The long-term viability and effects of a new technology are often questioned. However, one of the most interesting aspects of SynBio is that it could bring about fast solutions to problems without having to remain in the environment for the long term. If you create a novel organism made of carefully chosen parts, some synthetic biologists such as Christopher Voigt from MIT believe that one of the genetic traits programmed into the organism could “deal with the problem and then go away”. It is possible to create an organism with the ability to ‘switch off’ which means that instead of using crops that are always resistant to pests, herbicides, diseases and difficult weather, we would have crops that are resistant only when necessary.
Recently, a workshop on SynBio was co-organised by the European Commission and the Luxembourg Ministry of Health. John Ryan, acting Director of DG SANTE in the European Commission, stated that “promoting scientific innovation is an important contribution towards achieving the core Europe 2020 objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”.
Our society is both fascinated by and fearful of innovation. But whereas revolutionary findings in the fields of health and technology are widely endorsed, we are made to distrust innovations in our food. Most people tend to forget that the whole concept of agriculture is about using human tools to improve the way we get what we need out of our land. We are lucky to be alive at a time when in many parts of the world food is plentiful – at least for now. SynBio provides opportunities to fix the environmental mistakes – pollution, over-consumption of resources, uncontrolled urbanisation – we have made and create a better future out of human imagination and intelligence.