SynBio: Think. Design. Create life the LEGO-way
Disclaimer: Graphic content maybe disturbing to some viewers.
What if you can engineer new lifeforms? What if building life can be as easy, yet tricky, as arranging LEGO blocks? Most of us have fond memories of building LEGO sets, like Star Wars , or the Grand Prix Racer and even Technic.
Now let’s visualize a scenario where, the light bulbs in your room have been replaced by glowing flowers and plants; as a bonus they produce pleasant customized fragrance all the time.
Your toothbrush and toothpaste are substituted by a solution that prevents plaque build up, breaks down any food residue, and most importantly creates a biofilm that prevents bacterial growth that could cause gum infection like gingivitis.
A beautiful leather handbag and leather jacket that rests in your cupboard, is fabricated from vegetable skin.
And a sumptuous meat burger patty that you enjoy every now and then, is prepared without the involvement of any animal in the entire process.
The scenario seems quite unrealistic but what if it’s possible to have the above said integrated in your life.
The scientific community believes the new buzzword doing the rounds, “Synthetic Biology” or “SynBio” can make a huge difference to our day to day lives and for good. With the advent of this new science discipline, we can assemble basic building blocks of life like synthetic DNA ,and give birth to a new form of life. DNA lays foundation for existence of most life forms. The genetic code dictates an organism’s characteristics and capabilities.
Now, the most fascinating feature of SynBio is that it integrates beauty from every possible field of science from computer engineering to biophysics to chemical engineering to medicine. It has elegantly made its way into every possible field of research. Yet, we are unable to fully unlock its potential. SynBio has brought together biologists and engineers to work on a common goal of engineering organisms to behave according to design specifications.
The examples of synthetic biology integrated in our daily lives in near future is something we cannot overlook. While some people argue about its implications, others are busy building their world around it.
Off late, I’ve come across a huge number of articles in magazines and journals that debate over this topic. It’s important for all of us to be involved in the discussion, because it effects all of us.
What is Synthetic Biology?
SynBio is a technology developed by mankind that has changed our approach towards sustainable production of various commodities such as biofuels, food and beverages, chemicals, vaccine & antibody production and therapeutics.
Synthetic biologists follow a rather simple approach. According to them, different living systems can be created by engineering and assembling essential, foundation bricks of life — DNA.
It is often described using computer metaphors. The DNA code is regarded as a software whereas the cell membranes and other biological matter is regarded as the hardware. A living organism can only function when these two work together.
Every living organism contains a set of instructions that decides how they will look and what function will they perform. The instructions are encoded in each organism’s DNA,it is also known as an organism’s ‘genetic code’ .
Have you ever imagined that “cells” could work as “chemical factories” replacing gigantic machinery? No?
Well a biotech company, Evolva, brews Vanillin, a flavoring agent , from baker’s yeast . Vanillin is derived from petrochemical based industries but Evolva has managed to engineer baker’s yeast to make the process greener and sustainable.
Scientists are working on assembling synthetic genes that can work together to make new chemical/biochemical processes that could aid in production of high-value chemicals.
One of the most quoted example is, the production of artemisinic acid, in E.coli (bacteria) or modified yeast cells (baker’s yeast).
A company called Amyris developed a strain that produced “artemisinic acid’ , a precursor to produce artemisinin an antimalarial drug. The artemisinic acid yeast strains were then made available to Sanofi on a royalty free basis. Sanofi used the tech to produce artemisinin for up to 150 million treatments by 2014.
Industrial hosts like E.Coli (bacteria) and Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) can accommodate foreign genes and pathways that can increase their production capacity.
Some scientist are working on assembling and engineering different blocks of life to achieve a specific purpose like production of novel chemicals and drugs whereas a few scientists are working to create artificial life without DNA and expanding Earth’s genetic system. Other research groups are developing exotic minimal microbes to gain an insight on which genes are essential for existence and an estimate on the minimum number of genes required for an organism to function.
Synberc is creating tissues on a chip with human cells for drug development. These human organoids on a chip have shown to be better indicators of drug toxicity and efficiency over animal testing procedures.
Origin and Evolution
SynBio is not a very old discipline however the background with which it evolved is indeed interesting. The foundation of this field was laid back in the 60’s and 70’s when the genetic code (instructions to make protein) was cracked and recombinant DNA technology blossomed.
In the year 1968, an Indian-American molecular biologist Har Gobind Khorana was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for cracking the genetic code and role it plays in life processes by the means of protein synthesis.
In 1970, he along with a team of researchers successfully developed the first ever, custom designed, artificial gene and methods that anticipated the invention of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process — a technology used to amplify DNA. In simpler words, it is the Xerox machine of synthetic biology.
He gave birth to the idea of RNA synthesis and replication thus paving way to the idea of creating life artificially. It was this segment of research that gave birth to a then new branch of science called Genetic Engineering.
‘Gen’etic ‘En’gineering ‘Tech’nology : The 1970s Start-up
1970s was a period of breakthroughs wherein Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen’s experimental work laid the foundation for the ‘ revolution of biotech industry’.
Herbert Boyer was a student at University of California (UCSF) where he was studying antibiotic resistance plasmids in E.Coli whereas Stanley Cohen was studying about restriction enzymes. Together they were conducting experiments on DNA recombination technology . They proved that, genetic material from one species could be inserted into the gene of another species.
In the year 1976, Robert Swanson , then a partner at venture capitalist firm Klein and Perkin, approached Boyer. He strongly believed that DNA recombinant technology could be used for manufacturing commercial products in a shorter period of time. By the end of this meeting both Swanson and Boyer came to an agreement of investing $500 each into a new genetic engineering technology project.
The duo launched their company on April 7, 1976 and the company was known as Genentech( “Gen”etic “En”gineering “Tech”nology). In June, on the basis of their business plan, which was apparently 8 pages long, Kleiner Perkins agreed to fund the enterprise with $100,000 in venture capital funding.
Towards the end of year 1977 , it was reported in the media that Genentech had successfully produced “Somatostatin”, a human protein.
In August 1978, the enterprise announced that they were able to produce “human insulin” which till date is considered to be the biggest breakthrough in Biotech industry.
Following this discovery they made a similar announcements about human growth hormone ,gamma interferon and tPA- a stream of rDNA products.
In September 1978, Genentech signed contracts with, a Swedish pharma firm called Kabi AB and with another firm, Eli Lilly, covering the human growth hormone and human insulin respectively.
The constraint between these successes was to attain permission from the court to patent life forms; for example, an organism whose DNA had been recombined with a human gene to express a human protein.
However, after a brief before the courts by a representative of Genentech, the court agreed on granting both Genentech as well as General Electric to patent life forms that were developed for customized usage.
Upon receiving patents the biotech industry, as a whole, moved forward rapidly giving way to the biotech revolution!!
“I got 99 problems but Synbio ain’t one”
Scientists believe that in near future Synbio could combat global challenges such as food security issues, energy deficit, water shortage, disease outbreak, climate change.
Before we get there, let’s first look at the short-term transformations Synbio industry could offer us.
As humans we have various needs and desires but it is impossible to clinch these demands with the insufficient resources. An effective healthcare system in third world countries is a need, whereas killing tigers and other wild animals to make expensive medicine to cure a disease is not a need. Such acts to fulfill human wants exists worldwide and it is nothing short of animal cruelty.
Illegal wildlife trading is a $20 Billion black market. It is the fourth largest market after drugs, arms and human trafficking!!! Wildlife poaching is done to make fashion accessories and create extravagant decorative pieces. Some claim that body parts of wild animals also have medicinal properties to cure diseases like cancer. These lavish items may be made out of rhino horns, elephant tusks, different body parts of tigers or from animal skin.
1 kilogram of crushed rhino horn can cost as much as $60,000 and more! This is far more expensive than gold…
The most recent example that provoked a lot of people, was the dog meat festival. Yulin festival is held in China every year and we have been protesting against it and signing various petitions to stop this cruel celebration that brutally kills and tortures dogs to prepare dog meat dishes.
But, have you ever thought about the cows that were separated from their calves to give you that milk with your favourite cereal ? Or the veal, lamb, goat, or chicken that was killed so that you could prepare tasty treats for yourself? Or the monkeys, rats and bunnies that go through all sorts of cosmetic-testing procedures so that we could use these expensive cosmetic products.
Well, to be honest, no ! The answer to the above questions is a simple no. We enjoy chicken delicacies, we can’t eliminate milk from our diet that easily and some cosmetic products have become an indispensable part of our lives.
Can you imagine yourself being captive and living off a torturous life in a cage where you can’t utter a word?
But as soon as we see a high-end fancy gown made out of fur or leather , we forget that an animal was captured, skinned alive and was thrown away to die.
Till the time, none of us protest and raise our voice for these precious voiceless lives, these cruel acts will remain hidden behind the curtains. The list of such acts to fulfil human needs and desires is endless but with the help of SynBio we can bring down such malpractices and, at the same time, not compromise on our wants.
Synthetic biology involves construction of proteins, making hybrid proteins that can be transferred to a bacteria to serve a new function.
Food and Beverage
Meat production poses several other negative impacts in addition to animal abuse like environmental degradation, health problems that could arise from antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals, pathogens, and other contaminants, greenhouse gas emissions , water wastage and so on..
Biohackers around the world are working on producing cow milk without the cow and other dairy products without the involvement of cattle. Researchers are also developing a meat patty without farming animals for the meat.
Real vegan cheese is one such product, the cheese without milk. The team of biohackers working on this project are using an engineered version of baker’s yeast. They were able to produce “casein” a protein present in dairy products like milk and cheese, that gives the flavor to it.
Impossible Foods have discovered the molecules that give meat the flavor and taste so that the ground beef could be made from plants. They have spent over five years to figure out the aroma, textures, flavors and nutrients that make beef, “beef”.
Cultured meat is far more sustainable, hormone and antibiotic free and plays no role in animal- cruelty.
Similarly, Memphis meats have been successful in growing meat from animal stem cells. Likes of Impossible foods and Memphis meats, are contributing towards developing a sustainable global food system.
Fashion and Luxury
MycoWorks on the other hand, are working on making leather from mushroom and environmental friendly building materials. It’s quite fascinating, isn’t it ?
They use Mycelium which is root like fibers of mushrooms. Mycelium can grow in any sort of agricultural waste. The mushrooms grow together within the material that can be configured into any shape. Once the material has grown, it is baked to kill organisms that could lead to mushroom sprouting under wet conditions.
Pembient has been successful in bioengineering fancy wildlife products. They aim to replace the illegal wildlife trading by biofabricating wildlife products like elephant ivory, rhino horns etc.
Medicine and Health
Diabetes, we’ve all heard of this word at some point. There are close to 400 million people living with Diabetes. Doctors and researchers have known about diabetes for over a thousand years now but there is no effective treatment for it.
There is no generic insulin available in the market.
Insulin, a protein hormone that is responsible for metabolism of sugar and other carbs is missing from the pancreas of people with diabetes or the body cell’s become less responsive to insulin
For the pharmaceutical industry any little modification in the existing version of insulin is an opportunity to mint money. They patent smallest of these findings to withdraw the older versions of insulin from the market in order to keep the prices high!!
Thus, people belonging to poorer communities go without insulin and suffer from various complications like blurry vision, blindness, amputation, kidney damage and in some cases death.
A group of biohackers is working on Open Insulin where they are developing the first open source protocol to produce insulin . They will insert synthetic DNA sequences into a bacteria that will then induce the bacteria to produce precursors of insulin. The projects aims to make insulin available to all by making it’s production economically feasible.
A number of organizations including various Biotech accelerators, DIY Bio spaces, like IndieBio, Genspace, Breakout Labs, Biocurious to name a few , are working on building community biology for amateurs, entrepreneurs, inventors and anyone who is fascinated with biological sciences even kids. These organisations have given birth to companies that are working towards the welfare of living beings.
Every emerging technology has the potential of being bane or boon. It’s our responsibility to weigh the ‘pros & cons’ . Despite the good SynBio could yield in terms of health, environment and various industries, some believe there a few risks associated with it. But then every technology has a downside, that doesn’t mean we dismiss the benefits that could arise from it.
We did let the credit cards and online banking eventually pave their ways into our lives even though it comes with the risk of losing money or for that matter even the electronic items we discard could potentially affect our ecosystem
Let’s give this field of science an opportunity to make this world a place where all of us can lead a sustainable and fulfilling life.
PS: DIY Biology at home for all!
You can avail the molecular lego kit here. The kit comes with over 50 Rapid DNA Prototyping parts that can be used to create gene circuits that can act as sensors and switches!