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The dog days of summer are upon us and, baby, it’s hot outside. Severe to exceptional drought is punishing California and the Northwest, and government weather agencies predict those conditions will persist or intensify during August.
If you are a synthetic biologist, your field is hot, too. But, unlike farmers, synthetic biologists do not rely on the weather. Instead, they do their growing in the lab by manipulating the building blocks of life. It is a growing field that eventually may offer: solutions to some of our most pressing environmental challenges; greener versions of consumer products; and cheaper, targeted vaccines and treatments for diseases that plague us. Come learn about one hot field of science—synthetic biology.
What is “synthetic biology”?—
Ever since Gregor Mendel, the Polish scientist and Father of Genetics, played with seven characteristics of pea plants, scientists have been intrigued by genetics. His findings led to a host of genetic-related innovations including new varieties of vegetables and fruits, treatment (and children) for couples suffering from infertility, the discovery and mapping of the human genome, and a greater understanding of and treatments for genetic diseases such as breast cancer. Synthetic biology represents the next step in the evolution of biology. In synthetic biology scientists move from studying genomes and mapping genomes to writing genetic code.
Synthetic biology is new and is still evolving. So much so that there is not one standard answer to what it is. Read a few definitions of what synthetic biology involves. The short video, What is Synthetic Biology, explains in more detail how synthetic biology combines engineering and biology, how it works, how it is different than genetic engineering, and what the future might hold. Watch Synthetic Biology Genetic Engineering and discover what blending biology and engineering has allowed scientists to accomplish, the challenges that face genetic engineers, and how this is changing.
How can it be used?—
The previous videos gave you glimpses into early synthetic biology projects and products. But the possibilities are vast. 60 Minutes talked with the synthetic biology pioneer J. Craig Venter about his discoveries and the possibilities. Watch from the beginning to 4:08; then pause to consider: what things might be valuable to make? Continue watching to 6:14 to hear what Venter thinks the future holds, and what has already been done.
Synthetic biologists hope their discoveries will be useful. One usable synbio product already in existence is Artemisinin, a synthetic malaria drug developed by Jay Keasling and his team. Hear the story of how Artemisinin came to be; read the first two sections of The New Yorker article, A Life of Its Own: Where will Synthetic Biology Lead Us? Although the synthetically created Artemisinin makes the anti-malaria drug more available and less expensive, everyone is not celebrating its creation. Find out why; read The Guardian article, Synthetic anti-malarial compound is bad news is bad news for Artemisia farmers.
Synbiologists predict a future when nearly everything can be created in a lab: from biofuels and fabric to vaccines and antibodies, plastics and paint. Read more about how companies currently are pursuing and producing synbio products. Then listen as Suzanne Lee talks her audience through the process of using synthetic biology to grow clothes. What current problems do these products each address? What are the pros and cons of some of them?
What are some challenges?—
Synthetic biology—tooling with the very stuff of life—is not without challenges and critics. To hear what critics say about the work J. Craig Venter is doing and his response to some moral and ethical questions, return to the 60 Minutes video and watch from 10:04 to the end.
As the Nature article, Five Hard Truths for Synthetic Biology, notes: while it is fun to imagine the possibilities, synthetic biologists manipulate complex systems and monumental challenges exist. Read more about some of the challenges and possible strategies for addressing them.