Synthetic biology ‘not life from scratch,’ researcher says

U.S. Congress hears benefits, ethical concerns associated with synthetic biology

Lori Lesko
WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the heels of the J. Craig Venter Institute's announcement that it constructed the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell, the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing to examine the potential of synthetic biology technology.

Venter researchers synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. According to the researchers, who published their work in the May 20 edition of Science Express, the synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof-of-principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

"It is not life from scratch," Venter, who founded the institute, told the hearing, calling the work "a baby step" in the field of synthetic biology, with the eventual goal of building organisms directly to order from digital DNA.

Most of the hearing before the House committee was spent outlining the potential of the new technology, while easing security and ethical concerns.

Jay Keasling of the University of California Berkeley Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center testified that vaccine maker sanofi-aventis has licensed technology to make engineered brewer's yeast that produces the anti-malarial drug artemisinin to treat up to 3 million malaria victims a year. He stated that production is expected to provide the drug at cost to the developing world within two years.

"We introduce into these microorganisms DNA that encodes biological components such as metabolic pathways that enable the organism to transform inexpensive sugars into valuable, useful products," Keasling explained. "These products include drugs for diseases that afflict people in the developing world."

Bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick of the nonpartisan Hastings Center said he saw no immediate ethical challenges.

"I believe concerns about the sacredness of life are not undercut by the science," Kaebnick told the committee. "We are just talking about microbes at this point."

Besides, "human beings have been altering nature throughout human history, altering ecosystems, affecting the survival of species, affecting the evolution of species and even creating new species," Kaebnick argued.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), noted that it took Venter's team years to make their organism.

"We also must keep in mind that nature itself is already an expert at creating microbes that can cause great harm to humans," Fauci said. "Do not overregulate something that needs care, integrity and responsibility."



Could synthetic biology be solution to BP oil spill crisis?

By Lori Lesko

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The topic of synthetic biology has become especially compelling to lawmakers as the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, considered the largest manmade environmental disaster in U.S. history, has industry experts scrambling to divert a rapidly spreading black goo from destroying miles of wetlands and scores of wildlife. As some scientists, researchers and bio-ethicists testified, synthetic biology can be used to make nonpolluting fuel as well as instant vaccines against new diseases and inexpensive medicines.

Most the hearing's participants agreed the new environmental solutions would take time.
U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, testified, "Synthetic biology has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil and to address climate change. Research is underway to develop microbes that would produce oil, giving us a renewable fuel that could be used interchangeably with gasoline without creating more global warming pollution. Research could also lead to oil-eating microbes, an application that, as the Gulf spill unfortunately demonstrates, would be extremely useful."

Jay Keasling of the University of California Berkeley Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center testified that his team's work had already been used as the foundation for two biofuel companies—Emeryville-based Amyris Biotechnologies and South San Francisco-based LS9, known as "the renewable petroleum company."

By introducing into these microorganisms DNA that encodes biological components such as metabolic pathways, researchers are able to transform inexpensive sugars into products such as carbon-neutral biofuels. This, Keasling testified, could "reduce our dependence on foreign oil … and could rejuvenate the U.S. agriculture economy, potentially making the American Midwest the new Middle East."

In another example, Synthetic Genomics Inc. recently contracted with Exxon Mobil to engineer algae that produce gasoline in ways that not only eliminate some of the usual environmental costs of producing and transporting fuel but simultaneously absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, thereby offsetting some of the environmental costs of burning fuel.

Drew Endy, a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, said, "Synthetic biology brings us many more opportunities to better partner with biology in reducing our energy needs and net impact on the natural environment."


Lori Lesko

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