A new generation of scientists hope to become genome hackers who redesign organisms to become living tools, capable of creating diesel fuel or producing anti-malarial drugs. That synthetic biology revolution has led to a can-do spirit of innovation that has fueled MIT's International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, known as iGEM for short. The New York Times has traced the route to iGEM by following a community-college team from the City College of San Francisco, as the group tries to build a bacteria-based battery powered entirely by the sun for iGEM. It's a great overview of one of the more exciting scientific fields today.
Genetic engineering has traditionally focused on swapping out single genes at a time. But synthetic biology represents something much wilder and more radical. Rather than cut-and-paste, synthetic biologists hope to create entirely new genetic code assembled from an open-source repository of snippets of working genes called "BioBricks." Assembling them like legos, the new sets of custom genetic code can then be re-inserted into bacteria or other organisms, modifying their fundamental behaviors and life cycles. This opens the door for scientists to engineer entirely new living organisms.
This redesign approach need not only take place in large private or government labs, as iGEM's student participation shows. Another example comes from DIYbio NYC, a group founded by NYU students that aims to make synthetic biology accessible to "citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers."
Synthetic biologists of all stripes already have a large set of genetic parts to work with. MIT has assembled an open-source library, called the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, that holds more than 5,000 BioBricks. iGEM teams have contributed the BioBricks from their projects, but they can also make use of the library for future work.
Scientists from Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley have also launched their own open-source genetic lab called Biofab. They hope to identify thousands of molecules and processes that would allow them to efficiently assemble DNA parts in the lab, which would then become available for free to any would-be visionaries.
There's hardly any limit to the early ambitions of synthetic biologists. Even the Pentagon's mad scientists at DARPA have expressed the wish to immortal living organisms with genetically encoded kill-switches. But iGEM teams seem intent on more practical or at least achievable goals for now, including a seizure-inducing fluorescent Mario based on glow-in-the-dark bacteria.
Head over to the NYT for a great read:
Scarey!!! If these bioaugmented organisms get out into the open environment the interactions will be unpredictable, unstoppable and contaminate the indiginous biology. And cause ????? We do not know all the ramifications. Every one doing this reasearch may not have 100% biocontamination contaimment in their facilities. We are creating alien biology on Earth and only God knows the ultimate results.
I know this will continue, even increase and could be very beneficial. But, I have always been scared when men play omnicient God with an average IQ of only around 100 to 150.
@ orangebloodedal You have a point. Whenever a technology gets to the point that you can "Do it yourself", there are inevitably a bunch of yahoos who simply do it WRONG. This might not be so bad when a DIY motorcycle builded accidentally puts the parts in the wrong places, or when a guy trying to build his own tool shed wakes up the next morning to discover it lying on its side.
But messed-up bikes and tool sheds don't replicate, infest their creators' bodies, and spread to those of others. This could potentially happen if one of these "citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers" tries to create a cancer-killing bacterium and instead produces a human-killing bacterium.
Open-source genetic coding opens up a lot of potential, both good and bad. Most likely, this idea will be pursued, in hopes of developing better biofuels and other products. Let's just hope we don't kill ourselves off with DIY plagues before we start seeing the benefits.
Though I support this sort of research, I do have apprehensions about it. I happened to watch a very poor movie (a ripoff of the late 1960's cult classic, "Night of the Living Dead") a few nights ago in which government scientists develop a biological organism that locks up a person's neural system for 6-7 hours without leaving any damage. It mutates -- of course -- and infects people, kills them, then they become flesh-eating zombies. But it did remind me of the "Law of Unintended Consequences."
Perhaps this sort of research ought to be limited, by law if necessary, to professional scientists working is isolated labs with every conceivable fail-safe device and procedure conceivable in place.
I was led by this article to wonder about another aspect of this sort of research, made available as open source information: can someone develop something then give out the knowledge freely -- only to see someone else come along, snatch it up, and patent it? Were someone to develop, say, a truly effective medication this way but didn't him-/herself patent it, I could easily see drug companies swooping right on it in a heartbeat -- and then pricing it exorbitantly. Or does open-source material already have protections keeping this from happening -- have it in *any* jurisdiction, not just the U.S.???