Catching up on synthetic biology

Synthetic biology utilizes chemistry and molecular biology to craft hitherto non-existing organisms for unique applications


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just asked the NITI Aayog to develop a policy paper that can provide sound scientific advice to develop modern biotechnology. Photo: Bloomberg
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just asked the NITI Aayog to develop a policy paper that can provide sound scientific advice to develop modern biotechnology. Photo: Bloomberg

Synthetic biology is a recent branch of modern biology, whose principles are used to design and construct biological parts, devices and systems, and also redesign natural organisms to meet useful purposes. Synthetic biology, like synthetic chemistry, utilizes chemistry and molecular biology to craft hitherto non-existing organisms for unique applications. Products of synthetic biology are designed to provide precisely targeted, personalized medicine, create energy molecules for sustainable fuels, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medicines, drugs, for remediation of polluted environments and providing food for the burgeoning population of the world.

The fullest potential of synthetic biology is yet to be realized, but progress in the area within a short span of 10 years has been nothing less than impressive and promising. This life-altering science rightly raises serious questions about ethics and risks. The onus is on the scientific community to address real-world questions about synthetic biology head-on, and participate in developing appropriate policies and regulations to govern its implementation.

The origin of synthetic biology principles dates back to Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod in 1961, with their landmark study on the lac operon in the common bacterium Escherichia coli. The regulatory circuits in gene expression and metabolic pathways sowed the idea that one day, these processes could be altered at will to change the behaviour of organisms. Following the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in the 1970s and 1980s, genetic manipulation became highly common. By the mid-’90s, automated DNA sequencing and advanced computational tools enabled complete microbial genomes to be sequenced, which eventually resulted in the complete sequencing of the human genome. The scaling-up of molecular biology gave rise to systems biology. The concept emerged that living organisms have complex sub-cellular networks organized hierarchically in distinct functional modules akin to many engineered systems. A bottom-up approach to systems biology was envisioned to engineer regulatory networks. This aided in better understanding of natural cellular networks and created artificial regulatory networks that would have potential in biotech applications.

Between 2000 and 2003, simple biological regulatory networks were synthesized analogous to electrical networks. By the mid-2000s, the size and scope of synthetic biology began to increase dramatically. The first meeting on synthetic biology was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004, which brought together researchers from biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and computer science.

The first huge success in synthetic biology came by way of synthesizing the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin, an isoprenoid compound. After overcoming formidable obstacles, step-by-step assembly protocols such as Golden Gate, Gibson Assembly and Bio-Bric Assembly iGEM (international genetically engineered machine) were developed. A computational language—Synthetic Biology Open Language—has produced standard software tools to facilitate the description of standard synthetic parts and their use and exchange.

Craig Venter and his colleagues, who were the first to sequence the complete human genome, also reported the first synthesis of a new bacterial species by whole genome transplantation in a bacterium, the world’s first artificial life form. The rapid advances in the field of synthetic biology within a decade of its launch are astounding. In order to contain artificially created microorganisms, Harvard scientist George Church and his colleagues have developed a molecular toggle with which the artificial organism can be contained by a kill-switch if it were to escape confinement. At least, there is now a way to contain an artificially created micro-organism.

Synthetic biology is expected to be an $11 billion global market that will play a significant role in the bio-economy. As always, the US is expected to have a competitive edge in this technology, thanks to millions of dollars of research funding by the US National Science Foundation which was quick to fund this nascent technology so early in the game. The field of SynBio’s growth is hampered in the world by the lack of standardized basic tools, inadequate regulatory policy, lack of sufficient private and public investments and lack of stakeholder education and awareness.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just asked the NITI Aayog to develop a policy paper that can provide sound scientific advice to develop modern biotechnology. As expected, the usual suspects have submitted strong opinions to stop this technology development. Arvind Panagariya, whose proclivities are in the right place with respect to modern biotechnology, must be advised timely to develop a thorough position paper on biotechnology and its role in India’s bio-economy and advise the government to develop scientific methods to assess risks and benefits of new technologies, and develop a broad technology policy that not only addresses the present status of modern biotechnology but accommodates rapidly developing cutting-edge technologies such as synthetic biology. Falling prey to vicious campaigns by anti-technology voices is certain to leave India behind in the internationally competitive global knowledge-based economy. Consulting right-minded, knowledgeable stakeholders is the way forward and it is well-advised not to hold endless debates and discussions with those who have already made up their mind to stop technological progress.

Shanthu Shantharam teaches plant biotechnology and biotechnology innovation management at Iowa State University and was formerly executive director of the agricultural group of India’s Association of Biotechnology-led Enterprises. He is a former biotechnology regulator with the US department of agriculture.

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