April 14, 2024


With perhaps 100 million species of living organisms on Planet Earth, the tree of life might seem full to bursting. But not to some scientists. Specialists in the infant field of synthetic biology want to assemble new species from bio-bricks much as children build machines with Lego. Potentially such "devices" could be very useful in health, clean and renewable energy, and the environment. And potentially they could be very useful to malicious bio-hackers or political terrorists, as well. The risks in the new science are forcing scientists to work out a code of ethics.

Such is the promise of synthetic biology that billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has invested millions of dollars into a project to defeat malaria. Jay Keasling, of the University of California, Berkeley, is trying to redesign an antimalarial drug called artemisinin by building a metabolic pathway into yeast cells so that they can synthesise a chemical which currently is available only in a Chinese herbal remedy.

There are several different approaches to creating new life or new varieties of life. One is assembling organisms from off-the-shelf bio-bricks, strands of DNA which have universal connectors at each end. These can be linked together to form higher-level components. Another is redesigning natural components, as Dr Keasling is doing. A similar project takes genes in bacteria and fungi which can digest cellulose, the molecules which form a plant’s skeleton, to create yeast cells which can convert whole plants into ethanol. This would be a major breakthrough for environmentally friendly fuels.

A more audacious project is creating an artificial organism. This is the ambition of Dr Craig Venter, famed as the entrepreneur who sequenced the human genome. He wants to create a bacteria with the fewest genes needed for life. Then he can splice in other genes which will be able to generate energy. His work has the backing of the US Department of Energy.

Synthetic biologists sometimes describe themselves as bio-hackers. It’s an interesting metaphor. The first hackers were idealists who thought that open access to computers could make the world a better place. Later on, their skills were appropriated to create viruses and to commit cyber-vandalism. Since biological organisms are self- replicating and can evolve, they pose unique risks. They could escape into the environment and cause havoc or they could be exploited for hostile or malicious purposes. Until now, the public has shown little interest in the risks and social implications of synthetic biology, notes The Economist in a recent feature. Perhaps it’s about time to take notice.