Humanity is on the cusp of the age of synthetic biology. The power to artificially spark the creation of life and forms of life we choose and can edit. Right now, just the very tips of our toes have crossed the line that separates creature from creator. But it won’t be long before we are standing beyond it. What is happening now in the development of synthetic biology, where is it leading and what might it mean?
Creatures to Creators – Humanity’s Step Into Knowledge and the Unknown
Biology is the study of life. The word’s very etymology is just that, with bios the ancient Greek word for life and logos, study. Wikipedia offers the more granular definition of biology as
“the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their physical structure, chemical processes, molecular interactions, physiological mechanisms, development and evolution”.
The science of biology works its way up from the atomic level, where the flow of energy is controlled in a way that makes a single ‘live’ cell possible – right up to the entire ecosystem of planet Earth. Which is, as far as we can currently know, is the only spot in an inconceivably vast cosmos. The rest of the universe is, again as far as can be proved, slowly dying. Dying is not even the right word as it has never been ‘alive’. Rather, it is slowly returning to whence it came – non-existence.
And on a tiny prick in the midst of an eternity somewhere along its journey between coming into and fading out of existence, another form of existence – biological life – somehow appeared. This isn’t a biology lesson so we can stop short at RNA and DNA molecules and lipid membranes. And it also isn’t a metaphysics doctorate so no attempt to explore the fundamental questions of the universe or the meaning of life.
But just a couple of paragraphs is enough to spin up the concept of how crazy biology is. And how even crazier that we, biological entities thrown up from the primordial soup, are somehow able to consciously, whatever that might mean, write and read articles on biology. Or Snapchat marketing or oil prices or why on earth bum bags are back in fashion.
And it doesn’t stop there. Life flowered when DNA, genes, gained the ability to spontaneously reproduce themselves. Now the pinnacle (intellectually at least), so far, of that genetic reproduction has gained the still crude ability to consciously provoke and manage that reproduction. And even design new genes.
Our ambition and then ability to engineer the inanimate has shaped the face of much of the world. Damns, reservoirs, walls, cities, skyscrapers, roads and railways. We built computers and learned how binary code, lines of ‘1s’ and ‘0s’, could store and share all of the knowledge of the world, communicated to almost any point of it via satellites we placed into orbit around the earth.
Even 100 years ago could we have begun to imagine what we would have achieved through animating materials found on earth? For good and for ill. And 500 years earlier? So just imagine, as hard and inevitably inaccurate as it must surely be, what a future world, one in which we have also learned how to intricately engineer life, might look like. The mind boggles.
But even in the shorter term, what is happening in the nascent science of synthetic biology? And where might it lead us?
Synthetic Biology Today
Now is not the beginning of humanity attempting to bend nature to our will, needs and comfort. We’ve used selective breeding to optimise crops and livestock to our needs for centuries. Millennia even. And we’ve moved species and strains around our geography, introducing them to new habitats.
More recently, from the 1980s on, we started to modify genetics by cutting and pasting sections of genome taken from different biological organisms and strains. The result is GMO crops such as tomatoes with delayed ripening, grains with increased nutritional values or virus-resistant squash. The first GMO animals have also recently been introduced into our food chain.
In 2015, the AquaAdvantage salmon was approved as human food. A growth hormone-regulating gene was introduced from another kind of salmon, the Pacific Chinook. And a ‘promoter’, a region of DNA that initiates transcription of a particular gene from another species of fish entirely, the ocean pout, which means the AquaAdvantage grows all year. Salmon normally only grow during spring and summer.
But synthetic biology has now moved beyond the mixing and matching of existing sections of DNA written by nature. We are now able to write entirely new DNA to deliver chemical messages of our choosing. Cells can be engineered like circuits and software.
MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been one of the most influential academic institutions of the modern world. Its engineers were integral to the development of both modern computing capabilities and the internet. Tom Knight, then a MIT computer engineer, was one of the pioneers of the internet having in the 1970s collaborated on MIT’s first local area network. Knight saw biological engineering as a science with the same kind of world-changing potential as the internet and moved into synthetic biology.
The difference between living organisms and software is that the former has evolved over hundreds of millions of years with no specific ‘intention’. The result is that biological code is very convoluted. It doesn’t represent an ‘efficient’ route to an end result. But today’s synthetic biologists are learning how to write biological code from scratch to achieve the same functions and results as found in nature. And this ‘intentional’ code can be made simpler and more efficient. We’re still in the early stages but little by little this code is being standardised as little blocks that can be put together in different combinations like a biological equivalent to mechanical engineering.
Genetic ‘Circuits’ and Metabolic Engineering
One of the most interesting, and intricate, aspects to biology is the mechanisms by which cells turn genes on and off. Genes produce the proteins responsible for pretty much everything that goes on in a cell but only when ‘turned on’. We’re gradually learning how to build genetic circuits, in which genes can be turned on and off. The combinations in which genes in a cell are turned on and off is what dictates how two cells with the same DNA can be completely different eg. a brain or bone cell or a healthy cell or cancerous one.
Metabolic engineering is another key pillar to synthetic biology. Enzymes, a particular kind of protein, catalyse the chemical reactions that lead to all of the molecules found in a biological organism. The end result of the metabolic processes catalysed by enzymes can be things such as hormones or antibiotics. Metabolic engineers are now learning how to combine genes to produce enzymes that produce molecules of their choosing.
We’re now starting to build life from scratch. For now, that life is mainly limited to microbes. But synthetic biology is progressing quickly. There’s already talk of coding not just individual genes but whole genomes. Some of the discussed possibilities that would open up include bringing back the extinct woolly mammoth.
CRISPR Gene-Editing Technology
Gene-editing technologies, particularly CRISPR which is the cheapest and easiest to use, are a breakthrough of the current century. A molecule, CRISPR allows for a genome to be edited precisely, one letter at a time. The potential this opens up for synthetic biology has enthused investors, who are now pouring money into the sector, speeding up progress.
Machine Learning in Synthetic Biology
The advent of cloud computing, making the gathering, transfer, storage and analysis of huge volumes of data massively cheaper, has over the last decade turbo-charged the development of the Machine Learning branch of AI. Machine Learning’s value is in being able to recognise patterns the human eye would never be able to pick out of huge data sets. The convoluted designs of nature are especially resistant to human detection, interpretation and understanding. But algorithms can uncover these patterns and rules. If confirmed through testing they can form the basis for biological engineering.
Machine Learning is also allowing for the automation of synthetic biology experiments. Machines are now autonomously carrying out many thousands times more experiments than human scientists would be able to, hugely speeding up research efficiency.
Applications of Synthetic Biology
Medicine is one of the most promising areas in which synthetic biology is and will continue to be developed. If human, or animal, cells can be intentionally reprogrammed, most of the pharmaceuticals industry becomes defunct. Changing immune-system cells or those of the microbiome bacterial ecosystems of living organisms could potentially offer cures to most of the diseases or conditions that afflict humanity and other animals.
We are already on the path to be able to cheaply synthesise opiates and cannabinoids that offer the therapeutic effects of those found in nature without being addictive.
Bacteria evolve resistance to natural proteins and one of today’s greatest threats to human health is their growing resistance to antibiotics. But synthetic biology can add in amino acids not found in nature, leading to the creation of synthetic proteins the defences of bacteria are no match for.
Reprogramming genes could also render the proteins viruses use to bring them under control ineffective, making cells impregnable to viral attacks.
Agriculture is of course another obvious sector that will be hugely influenced by synthetic biology. We will soon be able to precisely create crops that produce their own natural pesticides in large enough quantities to no longer require farmers to spray them with chemicals.
Industrial biotech is another sector growing quickly with our knowledge of synthetic biology. Chemicals giant Bayer last year established a joint partnership with synthetic biology company Ginkgo. They are working on creating microbes that would produce fertiliser within the root systems of plants.
New, synthetic biological materials and compounds are being developed. The petrochemicals industry could also potentially be replaced by synthetic biology. Environmentally-friendly plastics and even oil-like but non-polluting fuels are a target that will almost certainly be achieved, sooner or later.
The Future of Synthetic Biology
Despite the rapid progress being made in synthetic biology there is much we do not yet understand. Biological life uses around 5 million different proteins and we only know what a small fraction of them do. But they are clearly important. Edit the genes of a bacterium to stop producing proteins whose function is not understood and they die. So they have a role in the bacterium’s functioning we simply don’t understand. But we may soon.
It has been said that if the 19th Century was the century of chemistry, and the 20th of physics, the 21st Century will belong to biology. We’ve got a little over 80 years left. There is a distinct possibility that over the next decades, life will be reprogrammed by humans to their advantage, taking new forms to act in ways we dictate and producing new products and processes.
We can’t yet say how much progress will be made how quickly. Coding life will be immeasurably more complex than coding software has been. But the two will be connected and the latter will almost certainly be the key to us mastering the former.
There will be ethical debates on the dangers of Man playing God and the development of synthetic biology must tread very carefully if it is not to inadvertently cause potentially huge destruction by infiltrating natural biology in a way that becomes uncontrollable. But the possibilities are grand and endless. And we’ve only just begun.