Web Zap*Germs Archive

January 19, 2006

Synthetic Biology: More Than "Stupid Bacteria Tricks"

An interesting science article in the NYT [get free login] on genetic engineering, now using the term "synthetic biology" [definition] to describe programming microorganisms to perform tasks:
While much of the early work has consisted of eye-catching, if useless, stunts like [programming] blinking bacteria, the emerging field could one day have a major impact on medicine and industry.

For instance, Christina D. Smolke, an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, is trying to develop circuits of biological parts to sit in the body's cells and guard against cancer. If they detected a cancer-causing mechanism had been activated, they would switch on a gene to have the cell self-destruct.

Jay D. Keasling at the University of California, Berkeley, with part of $42.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is trying to take up to 12 genes from the wormwood tree and yeast and get them to work together in E. coli bacteria to produce artemisinin, a malaria drug now extracted from the wormwood tree.

J. Craig Venter, the maverick scientist who sequenced the human genome, wants to create microbes that produce hydrogen for use as fuel.
Some scientists envision that biological engineers will one day sit at computers writing programs for cells, like software developers. But the code would be written in sequences of DNA, rather than computer language. When finished, the programmer would press the "print" button, as it were, and the DNA would be made to order.
When something's becoming a hot news topic, there's usually a flurry of stuff that appears at the same time. This topic is no exception: a Google News search on "synthetic biology" today returned a bunch of hits, including an excellent set of features articles called "Is This Life?" at The Scientist, and a press release from Beachhead LLC with good background info on the topic. (The press release announces a new, US$2,500 report titled Synthetic Biology: A New Paradigm for Biological Discovery.)


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