Last week a group of 150 invited experts gathered at Harvard. Behind closed doors they discussed the prospects of designing and building a whole human genome from scratch, using only a computer, DNA synthesizer and raw materials. Then the artificial gene will be introduced into a living human cell for replacing its natural DNA. It is hoped that cage “reboot”, change its biological process to operate on the basis of instructions provided by artificial DNA.
In other words, soon we may see the first “artificial human cell”.
But the goal is not merely to the creation of Man 2.0. In the framework of this project, “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells, scientists hope to develop new and powerful tools that will push synthetic biology to the exponential growth in industrial scale. If successful we will not only acquire biological tools for the design of the human species: we will get the opportunity to remake the living world.
Synthetic biology is essentially a marriage between the principles of engineering and biotechnology. If DNA sequencing is devoted to reading DNA, and genetic engineering to edit the DNA, and synthetic biology — programming new DNA, regardless of its original source, to create new forms of life.
Synthetic biologists see DNA and genes the standard biological building blocks that can be used as they please to create and modify living cells.
In this field there is a concept designer, says Dr. Jay Kiesling, a pioneer of synthetic engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. “When your hard drive dies, you can go to your nearest computer store, buy new, replace old,” he says. — Why don’t we use biological parts in the same way?”.
To accelerate progress in this area, Kiesling and his colleagues collected a database of standardized pieces of DNA called BioBricks (“bicibici”). It can be used as puzzle elements and collect genetic material, hitherto unprecedented in nature.
Kisling and others in the field of synthetic biology is like designing a new programming language. Cells are the hardware, the “hardware” while the DNA is the software that allows them to work. Having enough knowledge about how genes work, synthetic biologists hope to be able to write the genetic program from scratch, to create new organisms to change their nature and even guide human evolution in a new direction.
Like genetic engineering, synthetic biology gives scientists the opportunity to experiment with natural DNA. The difference in scale: the gene editing is a process of “cut and paste”, which adds new genes or modify letters in existing genes. Sometimes change is not so much.
Synthetic biology, on the other hand, creating genes from scratch. This gives scientists more opportunities to make changes in known genes, or even to create your own. The possibilities are almost endless.
Biomedicaments, biofuels, biology
An explosion of synthetic biology over the last ten years have brought results which caused the admiration of both scientists and corporations. Back in 2003, Kiesling published one of the first studies proving and demonstrating the power of this approach. It was dedicated to the chemical substance called artemisinin, a powerful antimalarial drug is extracted from sweet wormwood (Artemisia Annua).
Despite numerous attempts to cultivate this plant, its yield is still extremely low.
Kisling realized that synthetic biology offers a way to circumvent the process of harvesting in General. By entering the desired genes into the cells of bacteria, he reasoned, you can turn those cells into a machine for the production of artemisinin and to provide at their expense a new plentiful source of the drug.
It was very difficult. Scholars should build an entirely new metabolic pathways in the cell, allowing it to handle the chemicals, which she did not know before. By trial and error, scientists have stitched together dozens of genes from multiple organisms into a single package DNA. By installing this package in E. coli — E. coli bacteria are commonly used in laboratories for the production of chemicals — they created a new way for bacteria, which allowed her to secrete artemisinin.
Still need twisting a little nuts, Kisling and his team managed to grow production by a million and to reduce the price of the drug tenfold.
Artemisinin was only the first step in a huge programme. This drug is a hydrocarbon belonging to the family of molecules frequently used to manufacture biofuels. Why not apply the same process to produce biofuels? Replacing genes, which bacteria produce artemisinin, genes for the production of biofuel hydrocarbons, scientists have made a lot of microbes that convert sugar into fuel.
Agricultural sector — another industry that can get a huge benefit from synthetic biology. Theoretically, we could take the genes responsible for nitrogen fixation in bacteria, put them into the cells of our cultures and completely change their natural growth process. With the right combination of genes, we could grow crops with the full spectrum of nutrients that requires less water, land, energy and fertilizer.
Synthetic biology could be applied for the production of a completely new food, for example, fragrances via fermentation of modified yeast or vegan cheese and other dairy products, was developed without using animals.
“We need to reduce carbon emissions and harmful substances, use less land and water, control pests and enhance soil fertility,” says Dr. Pamela Ronald, Professor, University of California, Davis. Synthetic biology can provide us with the necessary tools.
In the direction of practice! One of the ultimate goals of synthetic biology is to create synthetic organism made solely from specifically designed DNA.
The main obstacle now is technology. DNA synthesis currently very expensive, slow and prone to errors. Most of the existing methods allow us to make DNA chain, 200 characters long; the normal genes are ten times longer. The human genome contains around 20,000 genes that make proteins. But the last ten years the cost of DNA synthesis rapidly decreased.
According to Dr. drew Endy, Stanford University genetics, the cost of sequencing a single letter with 4 dollars in 2003, fell to 3 cents today. The estimated cost for printing all 3 billion letters of the human genome to date is $ 90 million, but is expected to fall to $ 100,000 within 20 years, if the trend will remain at the same level.
In the 90-ies of Craig Venter, known for his leading role in sequencing the human genome began to look for the minimal set of genes required to create life. Together with colleagues from the Institute for genomic research Venter was removed genes from the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, to identify critically important for life.
In 2008 Venter gathered together these “critical genes” and put together a new “minimal” genome from a broth of chemicals using DNA synthesis.
A few years later, Venter transplanted the artificial genome into a second bacterium. Genes have taken root and “reset” the cell, allowing it to grow and reproduce itself — it was the first organism with a completely artificial genome.
If the new company will receive funding, it will repeat the experiments of Venter, using our own genome. Given that the human genome is about 5000 times greater than the bacterium Venter, it is difficult to say how much more difficult it may be such a synthesis.
Even if nothing happens, the industry will get valuable experience. According to Dr. George Church, a leading genetics, Harvard school of medicine, this project can open technological advances that will improve our own ability to synthesize long chains of DNA. The Church also emphasizes that the main objective of the project is the development of technology.
However, a meeting of scientists has caused a lot of skeptical comments. Anyway, this project may one day lead to the creation of “designer babies” or even people. Parents of such people can be computers. The present is just the future, but it is frightening: is it safe to directly manipulate the life or create it? Who will own this technology? What to do with a life that turned out to be unsuccessful? Will not generate if all this discrimination and inequality?