Bangalore: How far can man push nature? Is it possible to design disparate parts and build novel biological devices just as engineers do in electronics?

That’s what 56 undergraduate teams from 20 countries did at the annual international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on 4 November. And a group from Bangalore’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) won a special prize for the best model.

The National Centre for Biological Sciences team that took home the ‘best model’ special prize

The team “earned the prize for their work in adapting powerful mathematical tools for use in analysing the behaviour of engineered genetic devices," said Drew Endy, associate professor in biological engineering at MIT and a pioneer of this new discipline called synthetic biology. “It is critical to be able to describe the behaviour of engineered biological objects using computers, so that we can design more powerful genetic systems," added Endy.

“This allows us to test a very large number of designs, and only actually build those designs that show the desired behaviour," said Mukund Thattai, NCBS scientist who led the team.

Groups of scientists across the world are applying engineering to biology to create a catalogue of biological parts —genes, chromosomes, switches (which turn a gene off or on) and the like which can be used to synthesize a new organism. The idea is to build organisms that perform desired functions, rather than modifying existing organisms.

Inspired by the open source movement in software, MIT has created a registry of standard biological parts, called BioBrick Part, where researchers can register their parts and others can use it free of cost. Given that valuable and useful biological inventions are largely patent protected, scientists are clamouring for “cooperative world-wide development" of future biological technologies. According to Endy, because mankind and nature depend so much on biology, it is imperative that “future biological technologies are developed openly".

Even though it is still very young as a discipline, synthetic biology is being put to several uses—from programming microbes to produce biofuels, raw materials for drugs or even engineer them to clean up the polluted environment. Synthetic biology technologies have already improved production processes in the chemical industry. They also play a role in the “production of nanoscale materials that require precise positioning of molecules and atoms and are important in building computers and sensors," said Endy.

Business applications

More than a dozen synthetic biology start-ups have sprung up across the world, mostly as university spin-offs, but large oil and pharma companies are not lagging behind in the space. Even the nascent research at Thattai’s lab has General Motors and Shell interested. “GM is committed to energy diversity technologies and we are exploring Thattai’s research beyond biofuels. We fund research in his group on bio-inspired advanced automotive applications," said a researcher at GM’s India Science Laboratory in Bangalore who did not wish to be identified.

Globally, such start-ups have even succeeded in attracting considerable venture capital. Companies such as Codon Devices (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Synthetic Genomics (Baltimore, Maryland), and Amyris Biotechnologies (Emeryville, California) have been favourites of venture capital firms. Amyris, which is developing three types of biofuels using crops such as sugar cane, maize and cellulose, is also engineering yeast to produce artemisinin, a plant extract which is the most potentanti-malarial compound available today.

Synthetic Genomics, whose founder J. Craig Venter was in the news last month for saying that he had created a synthetic chromosome and would announce creation of an artificial life form within weeks, is programming microbes to produce ethanol and hydrogen.

Where does India figure in all this?

“You are talking of futuristic technology," said Rajiv Shukla, executive director and life science head at Avendus Advisors, an investment bank in Mumbai. “We are not even close to funding broad research in this country," he added.

Shukla, however, blamed “lack of innovation and entrepreneurial leadership" in the life sciences sector for not attracting enough investments.

But academics are hopeful. “There are several aspects of synthetic biology that are pertinent to India," said K. VijayRaghavan, director of NCBS; the most important according to him is in developing quality human resources, a niggling issue for the Indian scientific community.

“Many aspects of synthetic biology are quite naturally scalable, somewhat similar to the way the development of high-quality research in computer sciences and mathematics should be scalable. The primary requirement is deep intellect and the ability to teach rather than deep resources," he said.

“A few talented leaders can have a major impact."

The idea seems to be already having an impact.

The winning team has students from IIT Bombay and St. Zavier’s College in Mumbai, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore, and Delhi University, an indication that the young researchers are willing to explore new areas. IIT-Madras is planning to conduct synthetic biology workshops the way NCBS has been doing since 2006.

As for the industry getting hooked to it, researchers believe once critical amount of research begins to happen, companies will sense the opportunity and begin to collaborate.

“As definitive research emerges, from the work of Mukund and his teams, NCBS will surely move opportunistically along to collaborate with industry and with start-ups to translate these findings into application," said VijayRaghavan.