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Engineering or God Delusion — What Exactly is Synthetic Biology?

Bio-art by David Goodsell (Source)

How computers started a bio-revolution

Few fields are experiencing the same degree of turbulence today as the biological sciences.

If physics was the hot popstar of the 20th century, the 21st century stage is dominated by the life sciences (in particular genetics, molecular and cellular biology, and microbiology), sharing the scene only with computing. We could even argue that one caused the evolution of the other — the mainstream wave of computer and digital sciences served as the launch pad for today’s biological research.

Most visible is the effect of advances in digital technologies on making DNA sequencing cheaper. Today, you can go ahead and sequence a human genome starting from $1000 with MinION by Oxford Nanopore. Compare this to the $2.7 billion price tag in 1991 during the first Human Genome Project. In relation to Moore’s Law (output doubling every two years), one day DNA sequencing will be effectively free. Paired with dead-cheap DNA synthesis, laboratory automation, international collaboration and new data processing methods, we begin to see a field revolution.

And then come groundbreaking new tools. Genome editing techniques have been adapted as standard laboratory tools for understanding the natural function of genes by creating mutations with never-before-seen precision. These include the easy, cheap and customisable CRISPR/Cas systems from the bacterial and archeal immune system. With CRISPR, we can begin to build new genome circuits, edit existing genomes of organisms, and even introduce completely new genetic materials into existing ones. We could revive extinct species like the woolly mammoth, and engineer new organisms, like a new yeast species with just one chromosome. This re-imagining of life is what scientists have come to call synthetic biology.

How can we define synthetic biology?

Although you could easily argue that synthetic biology is simply (and shamelessly) ‘playing god’, there is a method and a morality in this 21st century madness. Synthetic biology implies tinkering — breaking things apart and re-assembling things in order to solve specific problems. A common definition leans on the key word ‘engineering’.

Synthetic biology = A field of engineering new biological systems that do not already exist in nature or redesign existing systems.

Like mechanical engineers, synthetic biologists hope to build predictable systems using standardised parts. A bridge has iron bars, nuts and bolts, and a genome has transcribed regions, promoters, enhancers and terminators. In fact, synthetic biology has evolved from a collection of fields. These include genome engineering, biophysics, electrical engineering, computer science, systems biology and evolutionary biology among others. The variety of fields influencing synthetic biology are affecting how the engineering process is being carried out.

Compare this to biotechnology:

Biotechnology = Technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or their derivatives to make or modify products or processes for specific use.

You’re right — the two sound almost exactly the same, and this causes confusion especially among academics. To make another analogy, a biotechnologist would take natural yeast and use it to make bread. This is a biological solution to a simple problem. By contrast, a synthetic biologist would re-engineer the same yeast from scratch so to ferment 10x faster, and try to raise money for their new super yeast in Silicon Valley.

Some moral goals for synthetic biologists

So, synthetic biologists want to use existing or artificial molecular building blocks to create or modify living systems. Why? Aside from lightspeed bread, living systems have solved most physical problems through billions of years of practice. A protein pump rotor existed on mitochondrial membranes long before watermills. Birds developed insulative coats long before puffer jackets. Our production and engineering falls under biomimicry, often without our knowing.

Similarly, living organisms can help us solve some of the most pressing problems society is facing today. These include developing new drugs and therapies, producing sustainable biomaterials, improving our gut microbiome, fighting emerging antibiotic resistant diseases, remediating the environment and degrading plastic, and tackling climate change with radical methods. Synthetic biology could help redesign and replace unsustainable industries such as agricultural farming, animal industries and oil production. What do you think — are these good reasons for attempting to ‘play god’?

Create and innovate with the building blocks of life

Synthetic biology opens up a whole new way of viewing biology. Instead of shutting research behind academic doors, publication paywalls or encrypted inside prestigious scientific papers, synthetic biology is on the cusp of a cultural, artistic and commercial start-up explosion. Instead of being caged in, synthetic biology has been blown out into the hands of students and DIY project developers who want to solve these global problems. This biological craft has developed into a new subsection to synthetic biology — biodesign.

Biodesign = Combining life sciences with art/design to explore the future of life and create solution products for a sustainable society.

We see this democratisation and creativity has resulted in popular organisations such as iGEM and the Biodesign Challenge. Biologists are increasingly being taught design-thinking and artists are trained with basic laboratory techniques. Synthetic biology therefore not only attracts scientists, engineers, and computer scientists, but artists and designers and creative thinkers to bring biological solutions to market.

Bioartists? What’s next. Molecular painters? Genetic architects? Organism fabricators? Demigods?

Mass god-delusion seems to lurk just around the corner.

The paradox of artificial life

Despite all its progress, synthetic biologists face a mountain of obstacles before they can solve any global problems with easy answers. As it turns out, biology is extremely complex. The very term ‘synthetic’ creates a paradoxical problem, since artificial gene circuits and genomes fail to capture the natural synchronicity and chaotic harmony of living organisms. Life is wonderfully random and uncomfortably unpredictable, and to defy that fact is to lose a lot of energy.

This randomness is a vital engineering bottleneck. Basic engineering is made of a hierarchy of systematic design: first parts, then devices, and ultimately complex systems. The key here is the standardisation of parts. Standardisation will enable us to build reproducible devices and systems, like the nuts and bolts mentioned earlier. Yet the biggest problem for synthetic biologists is to characterise these standardisable parts. They must be uniform, reusable, economically beneficial, and interoperable. Projects like iGEM are already building online libraries of standard BioBricks, with statistic dynamics and performance data for every single part developed. The creation of a comprehensive, standardised library will be the key to unlocking the bioengineering potential of synthetic biology.

Another problem is how to standardise biological measurements. How can we know that my orthogonal genetic gate designs or tuneable gene circuit has the same biological performance as yours, if we built them using very different protocols? Massive collaboration and open science is still needed to calibrate results and create universal modular systems, with standard physical conditions and experimental frameworks.

Let nature do its thing

One way to surpass the bottleneck is to let nature biofabricate at its own will. Instead of creating new systems from scratch, we would guide natural processes to produce our desired outputs. When we placed budding yeast in a fermenter, we created an entire brewing industry. Similarly, Bold Threads guided spiders to produce a silk tie, which could help create a new sustainable fabric industry. Maybe we don’t have to disturb and re-create so much. As tree hugging as it sounds, maybe we should create alongside nature, and not on top or through it.

The field is moving rapidly, despite caution and the unexpected two steps backwards. Yet the pressing global problems and effective communication (bravely attempted in this article) would dissolve the prejudices and dystopian mindsets triggered by word like ‘GMO’ and ‘designer babies’.

Instead, we want to see synthetic biology as a world wide recognised force for good, a force for something productive. We want to witness a new generation of bio-innovators, their pockets full of god-like design thinking, arrogantly attempt to save the world.



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Laura Turpeinen

Laura Turpeinen

Synthetic biology| Biotech | Bioeconomy