How Close Are We to Harnessing Synthetic Life?


WHAT IF WE TOLD YOU THAT IN THE NOT-TOO-DISTANT FUTURE, YOU COULD LOG ONTO YOUR COMPUTER AND PROGRAM LIVING CELLS LIKE SOFTWARE? EVER SINCE SCIENTISTS UNLOCKED THE SECRET
LANGUAGE OF BIOLOGY – DNA– WE’VE MADE MASSIVE STRIDES IN UNDERSTANDING THE ‘BASE CODE’ THAT UNDERLIES ALL LIVING THINGS. AND OVER THE PAST FEW DECADES, WE’VE BECOME
SO OBSESSED WITH THIS CODE THAT SCIENTISTS ARE EXPLORING HOW TO EDIT GENOMES AND EVEN CREATE BRAND NEW ONES THAT NEVER EXISTED BEFORE. SO, HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO HARNESSING SYNTHETIC LIFE? – Life is a technology. It’s a technology we didn’t create. BUT WHAT IF WE COULD LEARN TO HARNESS IT? THAT’S THE PRINCIPLE BEHIND “SYNTHETIC
BIOLOGY,” THE EMERGING STUDY OF BUILDING LIVING SYSTEMS. YOU MIGHT BE IMAGINING ARMIES OF FRANKENSTEIN CREATURES… AND WE’LL GET TO THAT… BUT WHAT WE MEAN FOR THE TIME BEING IS CREATING ANIMAL PRODUCTS, INDIVIDUALIZED MEDICAL THERAPIES, AND EVEN TRANSPLANTABLE ORGANS…. ALL STARTING WITH SYNTHETIC DNA
AND CELLS IN A LAB. – I look at them as 3D printers, but the most
powerful and successful 3D printers that exist today, because they can print thousands and
thousands of different materials all at once, and they can make more of themselves. And it comes with a programming language:
DNA. – Pulling the principles of engineering design,
and then the real fundamentals of molecular biology together is really powerful, because
it makes you think of biology as a design medium, if you like,   using genetic material
as the building blocks. AND WHEN IT COMES TO SYNTHESIZING LIFE, THERE
ARE TWO MAIN SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT. One is actually trying to build artificial
cells. Actually starting from the bottom-up, and
saying how do I build a living cell in a synthetic way? Either using synthetic, chemical components, or using
natural, biological components, how do I build a cell, basically, from first principles,
from scratch, bottom-up? IN 2010, CRAIG VENTER’S RESEARCH TEAM MADE
HISTORY WITH THIS APPROACH WHEN THEY CREATED THE WORLD’S FIRST ‘SYNTHETIC ORGANISM,’
A BACTERIUM MADE ENTIRELY OF SYNTHETIC DNA. – And most recently, out of the UK, Jason Chen
and his team synthesized the E. coli genome. That’s pretty remarkable. That’s a four million base pair genome. – We now can specify, we want a genetic sequence,
A, T, G, C, T, T, T, T, T, A, whatever. We can send that information across the web
to a company, and then they will put it into their production pipeline, and then we will
get sent back a chemical synthesized piece of DNA. – It’s only going to get faster, and cheaper,
and easier from here. BUT IT’S STILL NOT AS FAST AND CHEAP AS EDITING AN EXISTING GENOME TO SYNTHESIZE NEW LIFE. AND TO BE HONEST, STARTING FROM SCRATCH MIGHT
NOT BE WORTH IT. – A purist would say you have to make all the
cellular components from atoms, okay. No cheating, no using bits of life. You can make fully synthetic DNA chemically,
but for most purposes it’s not any more useful than something that’s semi-synthetic. – Now, the other way is actually taking existing cells, but re-engineering them, to have particular functionality to the extent of completely re-synthesizing the whole genome, and redesigning it Putting it back into the cell, which means
it’s still a species, but it’s got a human-designed genome in it. Building that code to perform a function,
or to do a design, or to make something. AND THAT’S JUST WHAT WE’RE
BEGINNING TO EXPLORE. WITH GENETIC ENGINEERING TOOLS BECOMING MORE
ACCESSIBLE THAN EVER BEFORE, RESEARCHERS WANT TO USE SYNTHESIZED GENOMES TO ENHANCE HUMAN
HEALTH. For simple things like detecting infections,
or detecting environmental pollutants, we can now engineer bacterial cells that will
detect arsenic or fluorine or any of these toxic chemicals, and will change color like a pH strip. THESE BACTERIA COULD PROTECT US FROM CONSUMING TOXINS IN CONTAMINATED DRINKING WATER, FOR EXAMPLE. AND ANDREW AND HIS TEAM AT HUMANE GENOMICS
ARE WORKING TO DEVELOP A LIBRARY OF SYNTHETIC VIRUSES THAT COULD LEAD TO CUSTOMIZED CANCER
THERAPIES. The virus is like a USB stick. You know it’s going to dock with the particular
cancer cell, and it’s going to load a program into that cell. Now we get to write that program to make it
even more specific for the cancer cell. We’re working with dogs, and dog cancers,
to gain experience. The cancer that we’re working with first,
it’s a bone cancer. So we put in little switches into the viral
genome, so it’s only active in a bone cancer and you can measure its killing activity relative
to normal cells. Like the first attempt at anything, it’s not
going to cure cancer, but we demonstrated that we could go from a file on a computer
to a virus particle that could infect a cancer cell, and we did it in a relatively short
period of time for a relatively low cost. OTHER RESEARCHERS HOPE TO TAKE ON THE FASHION
INDUSTRY WITH LAB-MADE VERSIONS OF TRADITIONAL BIOLOGICAL MATERIALS LIKE LEATHER, OR SILK. BUT PERHAPS THE MOST AMBITIOUS PLAN INVOLVES
“BIOREMEDIATION”––PREVENTING OR COUNTERBALANCING ECOLOGICAL DAMAGE  USING MICROORGANISMS. The concept is you have organisms that are
engineered that would go out and either start degrading plastics, start using plastic as
an energy source, possibly start using toxic components, cleaning up environments, using
natural microbial systems. OKAY, OKAY, WE KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING––WHAT
ABOUT SYNTHETIC HUMANS?! ENTER HUMAN-GENOME PROJECT-WRITE, OR JUST,
GENOME-PROJECT WRITE. A SEQUEL TO ‘THE HUMAN GENOME PROJECT,’
GP-WRITE IS BRINGING TOGETHER OVER ONE HUNDRED INSTITUTIONS WORLDWIDE IN ONE COMMUNAL QUEST:
TO SYNTHESIZE THE HUMAN GENOME. You want a human cell which has new properties. You want to make something that has properties
like virus resistance or senescence, aging resistance. You could do it with organic chemistry, or
you could do it with biochemistry, or you could do it by editing of living cells. You could build human parts, meaning transplantable
human parts, and from that you could build large portions of a human being. But right now I think we’re in a time where
that’s on hold, in part for lack of strong arguments for why you would want to do it. INSTEAD, THESE RESEARCHERS ARE LOOKING TO
UNDERSTAND THE GENETIC SYMPHONY THAT MAKES HUMANS TICK, BY DEMYSTIFYING OUR CELLS’
INSTRUCTION SETS. The simplest microbe in the world, which has
got the smallest number of instruction sets, we don’t even know what 40% of those instructions
do. So our knowledge base is still quite limited. It’s like redesigning an airplane with components
and half of the components you don’t know how they function. That’s where we’re at. AND IF YOU THINK TINKERING WITH GENOMES IS
A BAD IDEA WHEN WE KNOW SO LITTLE ABOUT THEM, YOU’RE NOT ALONE. I MEAN, WHAT IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG? SHOULD I LIVE IN FEAR OF EVIL SYNTHETIC HUMANOIDS
TAKING OVER THE WORLD? I think fear and concern and dystopic narratives
is a good thing. I think it’s far better to have too much discussion
of how things can go wrong than having too little. We’ve been using living organisms to produce
and manufacture things for thousands of years. We’ve been using yeast to make bread, alcohol. What we’re doing now is much more systematic. It just opens up all the possibilities. We have to frame it as the exploration of
inner space. Instead of going up into the stars, we’re
going down into the cells, and learning how to get there, and how to explore, and how
to manipulate. It’s as important as going out to the stars,
because if we get to Mars and we don’t have a way to grow food and to keep ourselves healthy,
we’re not going to survive there for very long. We just have to start opening the doors and
saying, “Come on in. Take a look. Don’t be afraid. Let’s all learn and grow, and use this
incredible technology for good.” SO IF DNA IS THE NEXT HTML, HOW CLOSE ARE
WE TO HARNESSING SYNTHETIC LIFE? This is a very fast-moving field. I think in 10 years time, 15 years time, we
will know enough about microbial genetic engineering to be building microbes that could be potentially
quite novel. We went from 2015 being able to edit two genes
to 2017 doing 25 genes in the germline to now we can do 26,000 which is actually relatively
easy in the era of exponentially improving technology. I think we could have mammalian systems, including
human, that are multi virus-resistant within I’m guessing two to six years. All you have to do is be able to write a new
genome, that nature hasn’t created, and   by that definition, I’d say we’re already there. We’re quite far away from even thinking about
a human. As the technology increases, there will be
more interventions into multicellular organisms, and we need to be mindful of what they are,
and have good reasons for why we’re doing it.

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