Synthetic life: excitement and concern

21 May 2010

Synthetic biology refers to the artificial construction of novel biological systems or organisms building on genetic engineering techniques. Recently scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) have demonstrated the possibility of creating a bacterial cell controlled by a synthetic genome (see BBC news). In a paper published in Science, the authors describe a proof of principle process for the synthesis, assembly, cloning and transplantation of a synthetic bacterial genome derived from the bacterium M.mycoides [Gibson et al. (2010) Science doi: 10.1126/science.1190719]. This builds on previous work in which they demonstrated the assembly of synthetic bacterial chromosomes in yeast and transplantation of a bacterial genome from one species to another (see previous news).

The initial step involved computer analysis of the genome of M. mycoides in order to design multiple segments of DNA that were then synthesised artificially and assembled to produce a synthetic chromosome. The synthetic M. mycoides genome was then transplanted into another bacterial species – M. capricolum, creating a hybrid cell. Cells that were controlled solely by the genome of M.mycoides were obtained following several rounds of bacterial replication during which the M. capricolum DNA was lost or destroyed. Analysis of these cells showed that they replicated normally and had similar properties to natural M.mycoides cells. The JCVI scientists envision that this technology will “lead to the development of many important applications and products including biofuels, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, clean water and food products” (see press release).

Synthetic biology is an area of simultaneous interest and concern for many countries; for example, a UK report examined the social and ethical challenges posed by such research (see previous news). Last year participants at an international symposium discussed opportunities and challenges posed by this field, with an aim to identify issues and areas for future study and help generate policy-level discussion. A report of the proceedings drafted by the OECD and the UK Royal Society has now been released. Participants recognised the need to invest in this emerging field as well developing policies for standardisation and international collaboration in regulation and governance. They also recognised the need for public engagement strategy and to discuss both the technical as well as ethical and social aspects of this technology.

Comment: Some applications of synthetic biology have obvious benefits, such as the production of drug-like molecules or biofuels, whilst others are highly contentious, for example the creation of new forms of life such as viruses (including as potential bioweapons). Media reports on the creation of a synthetic bacterial genome have raised many of these concerns, particularly in relation to the creation of new forms of life, although in fact the study by Gibson et al. did not actually create an entirely new synthetic life-form. In addition, many of the potential applications of synthetic biology that have provoked concern are already in use, albeit using alternative technologies. Genetic engineering techniques have been used in the production of modified organisms to derive genetically modified foods, inter-species embryos (see previous news) and more recently have led to a technique to combat mitochondrial diseases (see previous news). Hence, many issues are not unique to synthetic biology, having already been raised in the context of other scientific advances, and processes to ensure safe and appropriate development are already in use or development.

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