In a warehouse building in Boston, wedged between a cruise-ship drydock and Au Bon Pain’s corporate headquarters, sits Ginkgo BioWorks, a new synthetic-biology startup that aims to make biological engineering easier than baking bread. Founded by five MIT scientists, the company offers to assemble biological parts–such as strings of specific genes–for industry and academic scientists.
“Think of it as rapid prototyping in biology–we make the part, test it, and then expand on it,” says Reshma Shetty, one of the company’s cofounders. “You can spend more time thinking about the design, rather than doing the grunt work of making DNA.” A very simple project, such as assembling two pieces of DNA, might cost $100, with prices increasing from there.
Synthetic biology is the quest to systematically design and build novel organisms that perform useful functions, such as producing chemicals, using genetic-engineering tools. The field is often considered the next step beyond metabolic engineering because it aims to completely overhaul existing systems to create new functionality rather than improve an existing process with a number of genetic tweaks.
This is the stuff we need.
Why bother repairing our failing tissues for decades on end when you can just replace them with new ones?
From an engineering standpoint, this is just a plain and simple practical solution!
The convergence of biology and engineering is turning health care into an information industry. That will be disruptive, says Vijay Vaitheeswaran (interviewed here), but also hugely beneficial to patients.
Innovation and medicine go together. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have performed surgery back in 2750BC, and the Romans developed medical tools such as forceps and surgical needles. In modern times medicine has been transformed by waves of discovery that have brought marvels like antibiotics, vaccines and heart stents.
Given its history of innovation, the health-care sector has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace information technology (IT). Whereas every other big industry has computerised with gusto since the 1980s, doctors in most parts of the world still work mainly with pen and paper.
But now, in fits and starts, medicine is at long last catching up. As this special report will explain, it is likely to be transformed by the introduction of electronic health records that can be turned into searchable medical databases, providing a “smart grid” for medicine that will not only improve clinical practice but also help to revive drugs research. Developing countries are already using mobile phones to put a doctor into patients’ pockets. Devices and diagnostics are also going digital, advancing such long-heralded ideas as telemedicine, personal medical devices for the home and smart pills.
The first technological revolution in modern biology started when James Watson and Francis Crick described the structure of DNA half a century ago. That established the fields of molecular and cell biology, the basis of the biotechnology industry. The sequencing of the human genome nearly a decade ago set off a second revolution which has started to illuminate the origins of diseases.
Scientists have found a way to make an almost limitless supply of stem cells that could safely be used in patients while avoiding the ethical dilemma of destroying embryos.
In a breakthrough that could have huge implications, British and Canadian scientists have found a way of reprogramming skin cells taken from adults, effectively winding the clock back on the cells until they were in an embryonic form.
The work has been hailed as a major step forward by scientists and welcomed by pro-life organisations, who called on researchers to halt other experiments which use stem cells collected from embryos made at IVF clinics.
Sir Ian Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the Sheep and heads the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University where the work was done, said: “This is a significant step in the right direction. The team has made great progress and combining this work with that of other scientists working on stem cell differentiation, there is hope that the promise of regenerative medicine could soon be met.”
Stem cells have the potential to be turned into any tissue in the body, an ability that has led researchers to believe they could be used to make “spare parts” to replace diseased and damaged organs and treat conditions as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injury.
Because the cells can be made from a patient’s own skin, they carry the same DNA and so could be used without a risk of being rejected by the immune system.
When NASA began thinking about missions to look for life beyond Earth, it realized it had a problem: how to recognize life if it were found.
Scientists came up with a definition for life — a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution — but remained understandably fuzzy on the details.
It is still not known how life on Earth took hold, what happened to a bunch of chemicals that made them capable of supporting a metabolism, replicating and evolution. But a new field of science, called synthetic biology, is aiming to find out.
One of the most promising developments lies in a beaker of water inside a Florida laboratory. It’s an experiment called AEGIS — an acronym for Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System. Its creator, Steve Benner, says it is the first synthetic genetic system capable of Darwinian evolution.
AEGIS is not self-sustaining, at least not yet, and with 12 DNA building blocks — as opposed to the usual four — there’s little chance it will be confused with natural life. Still, Benner is encouraged by the results.
“It’s evolving. It’s doing what we designed it to do,” said Benner, a biochemist with the Gainesville, Fla.-based Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution.
Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to create life from scratch and they’re getting closer.
Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of “wet artificial life.”
“It’s going to be a big deal and everybody’s going to know about it,” said Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife of Venice, Italy, one of those in the race. “We’re talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways — in fact, in ways that are impossible to predict.”
That first cell of synthetic life — made from the basic chemicals in DNA — may not seem like much to non-scientists. For one thing, you’ll have to look in a microscope to see it.
“Creating protocells has the potential to shed new life on our place in the universe,” Bedau said. “This will remove one of the few fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role.”
And several scientists believe man-made life forms will one day offer the potential for solving a variety of problems, from fighting diseases to locking up greenhouse gases to eating toxic waste.
Bedau figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic life:
- A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out, allow good ones, and the ability to multiply.
- A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.
- A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as food and then changes it into energy.