Have you heard of synthetic life? Earlier this year, the world learned about Syn 3.0 – an engineered bacteria containing only the crucial genes for living. Its genome is the smallest of any self-sufficient living organism and consists of only 473 genes, which were designed in a computer, chemically synthesized and used to replace the DNA inside bacteria. And this bacteria is alive and kicking.
Syn 3.0 is one example of synthetic biology – an area where biology meets engineering. For many years, scientists focused on understanding how the DNA code works and how it translates into various traits and diseases. Recently however, scientists have understood enough about our genomes to begin writing new DNA code from scratch and translating it into a desired behavioral outcome. In other words, they can program organisms to do new things. Risk-free? No. Powerful? Yes. So what can synthetic biology do for us?
Not every application of synthetic biology needs to result in a new organism with completely synthetic genetic code. In fact, we have already started to take advantage of synthetic biology. By modifying parts of the genetic code of microorganisms, scientists have made several innovations: optimized production of synthetic drugs (e.g. antibiotics or vaccines), artificial enzymes, and sustainable, biobased production of chemicals (e.g. biofuels or bioplastics). However, synthetic biology might have even more to offer.
Synthetic biology goes into space
At NASA, scientists at the Ames Research Center are studying if and how synthetic biology could help to overcome challenges with space exploration. When going on a long space exploration journey, it is not possible to predict or bring all necessary resources (e.g. food, fuel, construction materials, medicines etc.) from earth. Thus, it is important to find ways of extracting resources, manufacturing necessary products and reusing waste in an extremely space and cost efficient way. Scientists hope that space synthetic biology can provide tools, which is reflected in the mission statement of the Ames Space Synthetic Biology project: “to provide robust biological tools and technologies to sustain human activities across the solar system for the benefit of exploration, science and the economy”. The hope is that synthetically modified microbes might help to harvest space resources, clean wastewater, process other waste products, produce necessary food and drugs, and to build up synthetic biology devices and control systems.
In parallel with creating conditions and tools that can sustain humans during longs space trips, scientists are also exploring to possibility of adapting the human body, which currently is rather unfit for journeys far into space. In her TEDxBeaconStreet talk, Lisa Nip, a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab’s Molecular Machines group, discusses how synthetic biology might augment our human body to make it fitter for the extreme conditions in space.