Science //

Bio bricks and mortar

Synthetic biology is quickly moving from fantasy to reality, writes Alex Gillis.

Synthetic biology – the design and construction of new biological systems and components using artificial materials, or redesigning existing ones – has long been considered in the same realm as invisibility cloaks and hoverboards. However, the field is definitely in the mainstream; scientists can now create biological parts like DNA entirely from artificial materials, and then successfully insert those parts into living organisms.

Advances in the field are already having an impact; scientists at pharmaceutical firms used genetically engineered yeast to produce large quantities of artemisinin, a first-line malaria treatment that was previously sourced only from the wormwood plant. Biofilm materials, biofuels, and biorecycling processes have all been touted by commentators as the next big thing. The hype is a bit excessive, as it is with any field of scientific advancement, but these applications nevertheless have billions of dollars and thousands of researchers dedicated to them.

The processes of synthetic biology aren’t limited to massive research institutes either; there are innovations to be found at a grassroots level as well. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has grown into a worldwide event with hundreds of undergraduate teams all seeing what they can design and construct working with the same specified kit of biological parts.

Last year Sydney University’s iGEM team attempted to build a biological reaction which could degrade dichloroethane, a synthetic major pollutant found in Botany Bay. This year, the USyd team is working to extend the toolkit by incorporating a recently discovered genetic process into the ‘BioBrick’ part catalogue. As bacteria reproduce asexually, they move genes between themselves manually, often using genetic units called ‘integrons’ to incorporate genetic material. A bacterium with a mutation which allows it to break down antibiotics could then pass that on to its comrades, making infections much harder to treat.

Fortunately, humans can also make use of this process. Callum Gray, a Sydney team member, describes using integrons to move genes into an organism, a process which he says could avoid much of the mucking around that is otherwise required. Gray is enthusiastic: “[We could] turn these mechanisms around and fight bacteria with their own processes”. Moving integrons into the BioBrick catalogue would allow use by anyone employing that system – iGEM itself is resolutely open-source.

However that very open-source, accessible nature gives rise to safety issues – as Gray cautions. For example, the genetic sequence for smallpox is available to purchase. Synthetic biology calls to mind the trope of monstrous Frankensteinian organisms, a concept looking less ridiculous every year. One of the field’s pioneers, Craig Venter, is attempting to synthesise life completely. The overblown spectre of bioterrorism shadows all synbio reporting; the real issue may be ecological problems caused by entirely new organisms wreaking havoc on natural systems.

Genetic engineering, as we understand it today, barely existed twenty years ago – the field’s pace of advancement is beginning to follow the standard set by Computer Science rather than traditionally austere Biology. Moving research from university labs to the competitive world of start-ups and commercial applications will only accelerate it further. Rather than reserved experimentation, genetic engineers seem to have a fair bit of the mad inventor about them – frantically patching together disparate bits and bobs, part MacGyver and part Nikola Tesla. One gets a sense of the exuberance and energy driving this field from iGEM team members as they talk excitedly about technicalities, spending days upon days in the lab to get their reactions working and results together. Despite criticisms of overpromising and overhyping, iGEM and the synthetic biology field have arrived – and concrete impacts are already here. The future is yeasty and full of engineered bacteria.