27 August 2009

Synthetic Biology

SynBio is coming. While we have been busy getting in a lather about nanotech, synthetic biology has been creeping up on us at incredible pace.

The field of SynBio combines engineering and biology in pursuit of the creation of novel new forms of synthetic life with customised functions. The idea is not to create some "imitation" of life but genuine functioning cellular forms. A "second genesis". The technology is more advanced than many realise. Some experts in the field state that they are less than a year away from creating the first complete system.

Versions of simpler elements of the jigsaw, such as a cell wall formed from fatty acids, have been around for a while but one company has now created a fully functional ribosome. The protein biosynthesis process undertaken by the ribosome translates mRNA into protein. Ribosomes are like the protein micro-factories of cells. With this incredibly complex part of the problem appearing to have been solved it looks like it won't be long before the synbio kit of parts is complete.

With the ability to make customised microscopic lifeforms, such as bacteria to clean up man-made toxins or specialised antibodies to attack specific types of cancer cells in precise locations, the microscopic world will be open to greater and more direct intervention than ever before. We had perhaps assumed that we would have to wait for the arrival of full-blown nanotech, with its molecular submarines and cutting gear, to see this type of revolution.

But all the while it has not only been the physicists who have been seeing the potential of viewing microscopic objects as potential machine parts. Synthetic biologists can grow the parts they require for their machines. They have realised that biology is also an engineering substrate. This is way beyond transgenics, where genetic material constituting desirable properties from one lifeform are mixed with another. This is about understanding the pre-evolved building blocks of life, classifying them, replicating them and assembling them into new forms. Those new lifeforms can then, if required, be evolved further in the lab.

Synthetic Biology is an exciting new field, the results of which will soon explode into the headlines. All the old arguments about "playing God" with be brought forth with greater vehemence and incomprehension than ever.

We know that all life evolved from one "ancestor" cell. It only had to happen and take hold once to give rise to all life on this planet. We're now on the cusp of seeing a brand new form of life - one created by human beings.

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