Knowledge Update

Playing God: The Emerging Age Of Synthetic Biology

According to Wikipedia, ‘Synthetic Biology (SB)’ is an interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering.

This new subject combines disciplines from within these domains, such as biotechnology, genetic engineering, molecular biology, molecular engineering, systems biology, membrane science biophysics, chemical and biological engineering, electrical and computer engineering, control engineering and evolutionary biology. Synthetic biology applies these disciplines to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications.

SB aims at the (re-)design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world. Genetic Engineering is the direct modification of the genes of an organism which results in capabilities being added or taken away. Whereas SB aims to modify the behaviours of an organism or integrate the behaviours of multiple organisms into a single organism. In general, its purpose can be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.

Artificial gene synthesis, sometimes known as DNA printing is a method in synthetic biology that is used to create artificial genes in the laboratory. The organism can store and retrieve man-made genetic information. In a major step toward creating artificial life, US researchers have developed a living organism that incorporates both natural and artificial DNA and is capable of creating entirely new, synthetic proteins.

Craig Venter can be definitely considered as the pioneer in the field of Synthetic Biology. In January 2008, Venter and his team created the first synthetic bacterial genome, Mycoplasma genitalium, representing the largest man-made DNA structure. In 2010 his team created the world’s first synthetic life form – a replica of the cattle bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. Named as ‘JCVI-syn 1.0’, its DNA code was written on a computer, assembled in a test tube and inserted into the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterium. It is the first time that bacteria have been able to produce proteins coded in genes written in an improved DNA 'alphabet'.

In a recent publication in the journal Nature, it has been reported that the scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California were able to modify bacterial cells to use the extra synthetic letters, or 'bases', in their DNA. The scientists used an X and a Y, along with the A, C, G and T that all other organisms use. The genes using X and Y have not only been able to work, but also produced a functional protein.

For a lay person, in the dictionary of life, there are only 4 letters i.e., A (Adenine), G (Guanine), C (Cytosine), T (Thymine or Uracil). For spelling out any life form only combinations of these 4 letters are used. For example, to spell ‘Human,’ 3.2 billion letters comprising of A, T, G, & C, are needed. The entire genetic makeup of an organism is encoded in DNA (Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid) and is also called a genome. In an organism, the specific genetic information is stored in a certain portion of the DNA known as genes. This information is transmitted on from one generation to the next in a very precise manner; however, sometimes there are some genetic accidents resulting in heritable changes in the genome. If these changes are beneficial it is maintained and carried forward. But, the change renders the organism may be altered from the parent/s. All these genetic accidents occurred naturally; however, scientist in the early 70s could insert foreign genes in organism ushering the era of recombinant DNA technology. Within another 30 years we were able to decipher the genome of many organisms including human. With improved technology, we are now able to artificially synthesize not only genes but a portion of the genome and successfully express them as an organism. Recent reports indicate that scientists are now successful to include more letter (X & Y) along with A, T, G, C, in the dictionary of life. This means that in future we may be able to see more new biological variants or even new life forms. Though all these may sound like a sci-fi movie, it may soon become a reality.

For more information visit:

Heather J. Synthetic DNA used to make proteins in living cells. BioNews. 4 December 2017. [Assessed on 15th May, 2019 from: https://www.bionews.org.uk/page_96278].

Callaway E. ‘Alien’ DNA makes proteins in living cells for the first time: Expanded genetic alphabet could allow for the production of new protein-based drugs. Nature News, 29 November 2017. [Assessed on 15th May, 2019 from: https://tinyurl.com/y53fqznf].

Kaplan S. Cells with lab-made DNA produce a new kind of protein, a 'holy grail' for synthetic biology. The Washington Post, November 29, 2017. [Assessed on 15th May, 2019 from: https://tinyurl.com/yxsjzw44].

Crow JM. Life 2.0 inside the synthetic biology revolution. Cosmos. [Assessed on 15th May, 2019 from: https://tinyurl.com/yymub225].

Dr. Sanjoy Kumar Pal is a Professor of Biology in Skyline University Nigeria. He has a PhD. in Animal Genetics from Indian Veterinary Research Institute, India.

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