Since recombinant DNA technology was pioneered in the 1970s, the molecular technology toolbox has been filled up with such a large variety of techniques that so-called “Synthetic Biology” is no longer a hollow phrase but has become reality, or at least almost so.These developments raise various issues, of course, in terms of potential benefits and risks. Experimentally modifying fundamental processes may give new insight into evolutionary pressures that produced biological systems as they are today, and may also lead to novel practical applications. Biological evolution does not tend to produce radically new designs because typically natural selection has only variants to act upon that greatly resemble their ancestors in most ways. Big evolutionary jumps are vanishingly rare because random modification of fundamental processes is extremely unlikely to result in something that is viable. However, intelligent engineering is a much more focused process, and therefore the creation of new viable life forms that use fundamentally different processes is no longer unthinkable. During the meeting various contributors addressed a whole suite of methods that modify organisms in many fundamental ways.
For instance, the molecular machinery that handles genetic material can be made to use synthetic nucleotides (building blocks of DNA and RNA) and even new amino acids (building blocks of proteins). The organisms that result can have fundamentally new properties. “Frankensteinian Science” may have a bad name, but it may have practical benefits too. Modified bacteria that produce therapeutic molecules on command may one day help to fight many a disease, and these bacteria may even be instructed to do this with precision. Just to give an example, one day diabetics might receive implants with bacteria that measure blood sugar levels and produce insulin only when necessary, thus abolishing the need of regular finger pricks and insulin injections.
Modifying genetic systems is already a big feat but, as participants of the meeting showed, synthetic biology does not stop there. For instance, new metabolic pathways have been designed and engineered to produce new compounds. It may be possible to design new metabolic pathways and to fine-tune cellular systems such as immune systems to produce new compounds and carry out new tasks.
Minus van Baalen, François Képès & Mikhail Gromov.
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