Biology 2.0 – Engineering encounters science

Ants constitute at least the same biomass as humans on earth, however their impact on the environment is minor. Humans, on the contrary, have a huge disproportional influence on their surrounding and throughout history our population was able to expand by manipulating nature, for example domesticating animals, cultivate corn, and so on. This phenomenon is unlikely to change as the new dawn in biology rises, taking life apart and re-shuffling it the way we want.


The first synthetic cell – making life from scratch

Does building synthetic organisms sound science-fiction to you?

Apparently some people dared to think the unthinkable and in 2010 the first synthetic organism, a nasty bacterium for ruminants, was created by humans. More precisely it was one of science most outstanding personalities Craig Venter and his team. They artificially synthesized a bacterial genome based on a recipe written on a computer, assembled it in yeast and then transplanted it into a recipient cell that had been depleted before of its own genetic code. The newly created cell was able to reproduce on its own and was the first living species “whose parent was a computer” as Craig Venter said.

The first synthetic cell not only was a technical advancement but also a philosophical one as it raised questions about the nature of life. Going along the philosophical line, the researches inserted their own watermark into the DNA in order to unambiguously indentify the synthetic organism. The personal DNA tattoo harbors (beside the names of 46 key contributors of the project, a code table, the cell’s own webadress) three philosophical quotes from James Joyce, Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman.

One of the latter being: “What I cannot build, I cannot understand” – Richard Feynman

The fine art of tinkering

The emerging field of synthetic biology combines life sciences and engineering with the aim to produce and design biological systems that do not yet exist in our natural world or to re-construct existing biological entities. The idea is to benchmark biological components, so called BioBricks, and to assemble them in a lego-like manner for a given application. Following a get & give philosophy, these standard interchangeable parts are registered in an online catalog. The famous iGEM competition gives teams composed of scientists, students and high school kids the opportunity to playfully create one of these standard parts.  What seems like a big playground in fact produced terrific outcomes like the biosensor E.Chromi.

E.chromi – living color from bacteria


In need of an intellectual framework

As with everything that is novel, synthetic biology introduces its own set of problems. Aiming at creating living systems useful for society, it is inevitable to release them into our environment. But how do artificial organisms behave in “the wild”? Could we unintentionally release harmful organisms? These are questions nobody can answer so far, thus an intellectual framework is highly needed to address ethical questions, the field’s aims and opportunities.

The history of genetically modified food has taught us that the public should not be omitted. In order to avoid plain rejection against a new and unknown technology, good communication, knowledge for the public to form a profound opinion and careful regulatory system are needed.

Thus scientists and companies should not keep secret what they are constructing in their ivory towers. Well, this is exactly the thought of a company called Biofaction in Vienna, Austria that specialized on science communication, technology assessments and study of ethical issues in emerging sciences, especially synthetic biology. With projects like “synth-ethic”, art and science is brought together to provoke public discussions. Another approach to reach out to the public is to actively engage people to do science in their own garages.  Do-It-Yourself (DIY) biology is actually a growing movement and organisations like DIYBio are helping citizens to gain access to all required information and tools to empower them to become a DIY biologist, biopunk or biohacker. Wouldn’t it be great to modify your morning yoghurt to give you some extra kick for the day by producting the antidepressant prozac? Designer Tuur van Balen showed at the NEXT NATURE Power show how easy it is to “DNA-hack” bacteria and thus demonstrated that this technology is actually more accessible than people think. Clearly, including people in one or another way will improve their knowledge and lowers their barrier to encounter scientific areas, which in turn gives them opportunity to form an well-thought-through opinion about synthetic biology and its consequences.


Engineering positively disrupts science

In the last century biology described and discovered the world like it is  successfully and provided us with a catalog of knowledge, which we would rather not like to miss. In this new era humans shape and design life forms, not necessarily the way evolution would do. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Moreover they nurture each other. Synthetic biology makes certainly use of all the knowledge collected in the past to design its fundamental BioBricks and at the same time it proves what we’ve already learned from conventional science.

This brings along a change in the way science is done. Influenced from the engineering site, synthetic biology focuses on rather specific applications useful for society. This goal-oriented biology clearly differs from the classical academic approach. But do not underestimate the power of surprise! In the early days of synthetic chemistry, it was obvious that one of its future applications would be to synthesize drugs. Initial attempts to do so led surprisingly to the discovery of the purple dye “aniline purple”, founding the synthetic dye industry. Although having specific ideas in mind, synthetic biology will encounter unexpected, exciting twists.

So let’s see what’s next!
In the meantime, one more outstanding video on synthetic biology

Header Image(s) from Pixabay & Gratisography

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About Lisa Landskron

Being a scientist in the field of molecular biology & leading the TEDxVienna Blogger team, Lisa loves to do biochemical as well as digital experiments to create and spread ideas.

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