“What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.”
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World , Ch. 2
In Aldous Huxley’s most popular novel, Brave New World (1932), the reader is introduced to the author’s view of a future in which science and technology reign supreme at the cost of individual freedom and in the name of happiness. Huxley discusses the intertwining of science and human lives as he grapples with the value and potential misuse of scientific advances. Whether based on prescience or ample understanding of human nature, Huxley’s concern finds a place in this age of synthetic biology.
What is synthetic biology? There is no single, all-inclusive definition, but synthetic biology encompasses an emerging discipline founded in biology, engineering, computer science, and biotechnology with the goal to mimic and redesign natural biological systems. These biological reinventions promise new inroads in numerous areas, such as biofuel, agriculture, bioremediation, and pharmaceutical development.
Many breakthroughs in a variety of science fields are the basis for synthetic biology. Recombinant DNA technology, consummated in the 1970s, ushered in genetic engineering, the ability to “cut and paste” genes or DNA segments, to transfer the genetic sequences into another organism, replicate many copies of the gene of interest, and in turn, the encoded protein. In 1977, Frederick Sanger and his colleagues determined the complete genetic code of the Enterobacteria single-stranded DNA phage (bacterial virus) φX174, the first DNA genome to be fully sequenced.
The development of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in 1983 by Kary Mullis further revolutionized molecular biology. By 1986, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved the first medicine (1982) made by recombinant DNA technology — human insulin produced from a recombinant strain of the bacterium Escherichia coli along with the first recombinant vaccine — a vaccine against hepatitis B virus (1986). In 1995, J. Craig Venter and his team completed the first genomic sequence of a self-replicating cell, the bacterium, Haemophilus influenza. Although complex, bacteria represent the simplest cells and thus have been used to study life at its most fundamental level.
In a Science article published online May 20, 2010, a team of scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Rockville, MD, reported a long-sought achievement, the first bacterial cell controlled by a genome synthesized in the laboratory. In essence, a chemically synthesized genome based on the known DNA sequence of one species of the bacterium Mycoplasma replaced the natural genome in the cytoplasm of another species of Mycoplasma. Mycoplasma are the simplest of bacteria, atypical among bacteria in cellular features with a genome thought to be near the minimal set of genes required to sustain bacterial life.
The “genome from scratch” accomplishment is the joint culmination of 15 years of laboratory bench work and computer science technology including the development of new tools and techniques to assemble large DNA segments and transplant genomes to change one species into another. The J. Craig Venter team is one of a handful of research teams leading the way in the nascent field of synthetic biology. While this recent feat will bring in another scientific era with possible applications ranging from clean water technology to new vaccines, the methods have not demonstrated the creation of “new ” life. This is because natural cells were used as a platform, and the genomes in the exchange were not substantially different. Although fully synthetic cells are in the making, new life forms or totally artificial life remain a difficult task.
As technology progresses toward the creation of artificial life, bioethical, safety, and philosophical issues are being deliberated. The federal government has in place procedures to monitor the ordering of chemicals required for genome synthesis in addition to regulating the ordering of dangerous microbes. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), appeared recently before the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the United States House of Representatives to present advances in synthetic biology and the broader implications. Fauci noted that the novel technologies have “dual use” with potential for both good and harm as do older methods and even nature itself. The key is oversight within and without the scientific community that limits the risks and possible misuse but does not stifle innovation and scientific enterprise.
References and Read-more-about-it:
1. Vergano D. Scientists create 1st bacteria strain from man-made DNA. USA Today. 5/20/2010. Available at:
www.usatoday.com/tech/science/discoveries/2010-05-21-genome21_ST_N.htm. Accessed June 17, 2010.
2. J. Craig Venter Institute. First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell/Overview. Available at:
Accessed June 17, 2010.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Testimony. Advances in Synthetic Biology: Significance and Implications. Available at: http://www.hhs.gov/asl/testify/2010/05/t20100527a.html Accessed June 17, 2010.
4. Gibson DG, Glass JI, Lartigue C, et al. Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Science. 2010 May 20. [Epub ahead of print].
5. John I. Glass, Nacyra Assad-Garcia, Nina Alperovich, et al. Essential genes of a minimal bacterium. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Jan 10;103(2):425-30. Epub 2006 Jan 3.