More than a century ago, a French biologist wrote a book called Synthetic Biology, proposing a radical program to mimic the systems of life with non-biological molecules. He made little progress, and his work faded into obscurity. But advances in knowledge since then now make it possible to go far beyond his ambitious dream, not just by mimicking life, but by repairing it, transforming it, and even creating new forms of life. The revolutionary field of synthetic biology already has significant achievements to its credit—in medical treatments, food and agriculture, and materials science. Furthermore, researchers are hard at work on astonishing projects such as:
- DNA Computers: A single cell may contain the entire code for assembling an organism such as a human. A computer using a DNA “drive” could theoretically store all the world’s data in just a few cubic feet of space. Synthetic biology would provide the read-and-write mechanism.
- De-extinction: The Jurassic Park scenario could be coming to life—not with dinosaurs, whose DNA is too degraded, but with more recent extinct creatures, like wooly mammoths. The revived species would combine the original with living relatives—for example, elephants.
- Xenobiology: DNA happens to be the combination of elements that evolution selected as the carrier for genetic information. There is no reason that other combinations aren’t possible, which raises the prospect of all sorts of organisms with novel, even alien, capabilities.
We are living in a golden age of breakthroughs in the life sciences, and nowhere more so than in the field of synthetic biology. In 18 in-depth, half-hour lectures designed for non-scientists, Synthetic Biology: Life’s Extraordinary New Worlds explains just what synthetic biology is, what it has done, and what the exciting future may hold. Taught by Professor Milton Muldrow of Wilmington University, the course also considers the profound ethical questions that arise when scientists have the power to create life.
Tools of Synthetic Biology
Ever since the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, many of the mysteries of life have slowly yielded to science. The milestones include proof that genetic information flows from DNA to RNA to proteins, in 1958; the combining of DNA fragments from different sources to produce recombinant DNA, in 1972; the first experiments in genetic engineering, in 1973; and the decoding of the human genome, between 1990 and 2003.
These developments, and more, have given researchers the tools to control life at the level of genes, which are the units of DNA that perform specific functions. In this course, you learn that synthetic biology arose from the growing ability to manipulate the machinery of life through techniques such as:
- CRISPR: Lauded as a world-changing technology, CRISPR is a precise gene-editing tool that won its discoverers the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It has revolutionized cancer therapy and other treatments and is being turned to address environmental problems and a host of other diverse uses.
- Directed Evolution: Another Nobel prize–winning discovery is directed evolution, a process that greatly accelerates evolution. The idea is to produce proteins with desired traits by letting nature do the work. Nature’s path often operates in ways that would be inconceivable to predict.
- Metabolic Engineering: By adjusting the metabolism of cells to make them more efficient, valuable products such as insulin can be synthesized in quantity, turning living organisms into cell factories. Today, synthetic biology is supercharging metabolic engineering to deliver a new world of products and medicines.
Dr. Muldrow also covers the use of synthetic biology in textiles, agriculture, and regenerative medicine, and he explains how it greatly accelerated the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As soon as Chinese researchers transmitted a digital draft version of the COVID genetic code, scientists around the world had the ability to quickly reproduce it for study. No isolation of a virus from a patient was necessary, nor did researchers have to wait to get a complete sample from a far-off lab. Instead, they could use synthetic biology to create a complete virus genome immediately and set to work developing a vaccine.
The Dangers of Misuse
Powerful tools have a powerful potential for misuse, and synthetic biology is no exception. Professor Muldrow highlights some troubling possible scenarios, including:
- Embryonic Engineering: Gene therapies allow genetic diseases to be eliminated at their source. But the method also raises the prospect of designer babies with whatever trait is deemed advantageous; creating, for example, super geniuses, athletes, or soldiers. This raises profound social and ethical questions.
- Gene Drives: A gene drive is a mechanism to spread a gene or group of genes through a population. This can be done for noble purposes, such as eradicating diseases, but also as part of warfare. Furthermore, a gene drive could unintentionally get out of control, wiping out entire species.
- Synthetic Virology: The ability to engineer viruses has enormous potential for benefitting society. But in the wrong hands the technology could be devasting, leading to the revival of scourges such as smallpox. Moreover, the innocent error of a single researcher could have a catastrophic outcome.
Safeguards are already in place to reduce some of these risks. But given the pace of change in synthetic biology and the almost limitless possibilities for harm, much more can be done, as Professor Muldrow discusses.
A Revolution in Progress
Living amid a revolution, it’s hard to see where things are heading or how thoroughly society will change. Dr. Muldrow likens today’s snowballing advances in synthetic biology to the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago, when many of the current branches of life abruptly appeared in the fossil record. At the time, the increase in oxygen in the atmosphere due to photosynthesis; the accumulation of molecular and physical adaptations in organisms; the diversity of species relationships; and the appearance of hard body parts in animals, along with other factors, equipped evolution with new variables with which to play. The time was ripe for radical change.
“This reminds me of the current state of synthetic biology,” says Professor Muldrow. “There are so many converging technologies, methods, and capabilities within the science that what will transpire in the coming decades is likely to be truly transformative.” Synthetic Biology: Life’s Extraordinary New Worlds is your insightful, accessible, and fascinating guide to this ongoing revolution, which will affect all of us.
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