New Delhi: Will synthetic bacteria engineered to secrete petrol, or specialized DNA that can power microprocessor chips come out of an Indian laboratory? The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR, the largest network of research laboratories in the country hopes so and is drafting a long-term strategy to give the nascent, but zany science of synthetic biology a fillip.
Towering success: J. Craig Venter, who is close to synthesizing a new bacteria, is the one of the most famous synthetic biologists. Photograph: Jamie Rector / Bloomberg
CSIR’s strategy includes a proposal for collaboration with the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, or BCSB, at the University of California, one of the pioneering institutions in the field.
According to a scientist, who didn’t wish to be identified, at CSIR’s international affairs division, which is involved in the programme: “While a major programme on synthetic biology is certainly on the anvil, we are still finalizing an MoU with Jay Keasling, BCSB’s director.”
Keasling didn’t respond to an email from Mint.
On the scientific front, the programme will broadly focus on energy and health. Siddhartha Roy, director of the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology; Girish Sahni of the Institute of Microbial Technology ; and B.D. Kulkarni at the National Chemical Laboratory — all CSIR labs — will coordinate the programme.
“Energy, health and designing micromachines, which can be used for applications including drug delivery, are the current focus areas of the programme,” said Roy.
Even as the agreement with BCSB is being finalized, a series of meetings are being carried out with scientists across the country, who could be involved with the programme, said the scientist at CSIR’s international affairs division.
“Different universities and different researchers have their own interpretation of synthetic biology,” said P. Balram, director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The 100-year-old institution plans an inter-disciplinary centre which will have synthetic biology as one of its focus areas.
One approach is to use biological “parts”, such as enzymes to design novel systems.
For instance, Keasling, a leading researcher in the field, has put some specially cloned genes in yeast to make it produce artemisinic acid, a precursor to anti-malarial drug artemisinin.
Normally, artemisinin is only available from Chinese herb Artemisia annua, and costs about $2.50 (around Rs268) a dose.
The researchers at his lab are trying to re-engineer E.Coli, a well known bacterium to produce artemisinin to bring down the cost of the drug to $0.25, says a statement on the lab’s website.
“So in one way, it’s like using standard parts such as nuts, bolts and washers to create a new engine, except that this time we are creating novel living organisms, to perform a specific function,” said Roy.
Then there are other scientists who are trying to understand the exact working action of certain proteins, and attempting to design mechanical systems that mimic their actions.
Trying to imitate the precise actions of the human esophagus, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials in Germany, have made a miniature pump that can be fitted in the body and be used to administer extremely small, exact variable dosages of medicine.
The most famous of the synthetic biology pioneers is J. Craig Venter, who is close to synthesizing a completely new bacteria, with every fragment of its DNA being made in a lab.
S. Ramachandran of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which is into genome analysis, said a crucial application of synthetic biology is in making “protein pumps”.
“Some bacteria naturally make molecules, which can be useful as potential drug candidates. But it’s hard to make them give up these molecules. However, we can use certain proteins from other organisms, which can push out the molecule from the bacteria. That’s going to be one of the most important applications of synthetic biology,” said Ramachandran.