Synthetic biology and nanotechnology

by Andrew Maynard on January 26, 2008

The popular computer game “SimLife” allows users to create and manipulate virtual people.  But what are the chances of us one day being able to do the same with real organisms: building new life-forms out of basic chemicals, so “SimLife” becomes “SynLife”?

This week’s announcement by J. Craig Venter’s team (and the associated paper in Science) that they have successfully synthesized the complete genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium is an important step towards achieving what is becoming known as “synthetic biology”.  By constructing complete DNA sequences from scratch, the door is being opened to transforming common laboratory chemicals into new living organisms; that are engineered with specific purposes in mind.  And perhaps not surprisingly, this manipulation of DNA at the nanoscale is increasingly being seen as part of the “nanotechnology revolution”.

But is synthetic biology really nanotechnology?

I was initially sceptical. While synthetic biology holds the promise of being a truly transformative technology, I suspected it was in reality just advanced biochemistry; and calling it “nanotechnology” was little more than a cynical ploy to jump on the nanotech bandwagon.  Yet I must confess, having discussed the question with researchers in the field, my initial impressions are shifting.

If you consider nanotechnology to be the intentional manipulation of matter at the nanoscale and the exploitation of resulting material properties, then synthetic biology certainly begins to sound like nanotech.  In contrast to “natural” biology, synthetic biology aims to construct with intent the DNA code of brand new life forms, which will quite literally have functionality that has been engineered-in at a nanometer scale.  And the long-term vision of synthetic biology is to create DNA sequences that will lead to new proteins, precisely engineered to undertake specific tasks.

If this is not nanotechnology, I don’t know what is.

But I have to wonder: is the issue of whether synthetic biology is nanotechnology or not really the right question?  Surely the challenge of synthetic biology is not what label we give it, but whether we have the maturity to use our new-found abilities to change the world for the better, without creating more problems than we solve.

Conceptually, there is remarkably little difference between the sequence of base-pairs in DNA and the ones and zeros making up a computer program.  But while the latter allows software engineers to create incredibly complex worlds inside computers, DNA engineering opens the door to re-programming life itself.  Imagine at some point in the future creating microbes to harvest energy, sequester carbon dioxide and clean up pollution, simply by typing their desired characteristics into your “SynLife” program and pressing “Enter.”  It sounds fanciful, but while the consequences are profound, the technology is almost within our grasp.

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that synthetic biology has the potential to transform our world.  I would probably go so far as to say that it holds at least some of the keys to overcoming some of the biggest challenges facing society—including climate change, poverty and disease.  But the challenges to using this new technology responsibly are immense: How will we handle the temptation to misuse synthetic biology; what safeguards will be put in place to prevent unforeseen “bugs” in the system; and who will determine where the ethical line in the sand is drawn, which says “thus far – and no further” – or should there even be such a line?

Thrilling and challenging as the prospects of synthetic biology are, we are not quite there yet.  While Venter’s team have assembled the first complete synthetic bacterium genome, they have yet to see whether they can use it to create a living, replicating organism.  The next step is to place the DNA in a cell and, in Venter’s words, see whether the cell “boots up”.  But the team is hopeful that this will be achieved in a matter of months.

And when it is, the question will not be “is this nanotechnology?” but “are we ready for it?”  I hope we are.

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Footnote

While the term “synthetic biology” is widely used to describe the intentional manipulation of DNA to create new proteins and organisms, it is also used in another context: the creation of non DNA-based systems that mimic biology.

To purists, this is true synthetic biology: not playing around with the existing building blocks of life, but creating a brand new construction set.  This alternative construction set would consist of new molecules built from scratch, as well as systems of such molecules, that are designed to carry out functions analogous to their biological counterparts–transporting materials, harvesting energy, building structures, and even replicating themselves.

Given the current state of nanotechnology—sophisticated as it is—it is hard to imagine coming close to mimicking the complexity of even the simplest DNA-based systems in our lifetime.  Yet this is an active area of research, and at some point it will raise many of the questions currently emerging with Venter’s vision of synthetic biology.  But there is one important difference: while DNA-based synthetic biology tinkers with life as we know it, non-DNA synthetic biology raises the possibility of creating completely artificial life-forms.  And this—if it is even plausible—opens up a whole other can of worms!

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This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in February 2008

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