Science Talk

Engineering artificial life in the lab

Scientists hope to use synthetic biology to find cures, create food and sustain resources

The current buzz in science and engineering is over synthetic biology.

There are many definitions of this "new kid on the block", and by most accounts they describe a meeting of the engineering sciences with the biological (biomedical) sciences.

This is an emerging area of research that can be described broadly as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.

All living things have a genome which dictates what they look like and what they do. Humans have been altering the genetic code of plants and animals for thousands of years by selectively breeding those with desirable traits.

But as scientists learnt more about how to read and manipulate this code, they took genetic information associated with useful features from one organism and added it into others. Such genetic engineering has allowed researchers to develop new breeds of plants and animals faster.

More recent advances, however, have allowed scientists to make new sequences of DNA from scratch. By combining these advances with the principles of modern engineering, scientists can now use computers and laboratory chemicals to design organisms that do new things, such as producing biofuels or creating drugs.

Our understanding of biology and our command of engineering tools and standards have led us to this new frontier. In essence, synthetic biology is the purposeful design and engineering of biology to solve challenges confronting our world.

For more than two decades, biologists and engineers have been trying to make sense of each other's worlds: Understanding life has kept biologists busy, and bringing comfort and convenience to life has kept engineers hard at work.

But the quantum leap - in demonstrating this knowledge of life by engineering it - has been elusive to both sides until recently.

With the arrival of breakthrough technologies that allowed rapid sequencing of genomes and the synthesis of entire genes - even a whole microbe or chromosomes of yeast - humanity has finally obtained the means to engineer life.

Fast off the starting block, synthetic biology has already shown its potential in revolutionising many sectors of civilisation.

In areas as varied as energy, healthcare and the environment, this new discipline has achieved impressive and astounding results that were not previously possible.

For instance, Professor Jay Keasling, a synthetic biologist from the United States, has developed microbes that produce drugs, such as artemisinin, an anti-malaria drug that was first extracted from the herb sweet wormwood by the Chinese more than 2,000 years ago.

It can now be produced by drug company Sanofi using synthetic biology methods, and made more affordable to patients around the world.

Professor Craig Venter, a biochemist responsible for sequencing the human genome, has created the first microbe with an artificial, synthetic genome.

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which enabled the birth of many breakthrough innovations such as the Internet, the Global Positioning System and self-driving cars, is attempting to develop a new type of biological manufacturing platform that makes it possible to rapidly design and engineer a range of synthetic organisms.

Others, like the company Oxitec, have employed synthetic biology methods in an effort to eradicate dengue fever by releasing - albeit with some controversy - engineered male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes into the wild to bring down entire populations of the dengue virus-carrying mosquitoes.

This involves genetically engineering the male of the mosquito species which carries the dengue virus, but loading a self-limiting gene, which means their offspring would die before reaching adulthood, thus controlling the population.

The astonishing potential of synthetic biology to change the way we live could also have serious ethical and cultural impact on our society.

Would the creation of synthetic organisms be publicly and ethically acceptable? Does our society possess adequate regulatory and legal policies for the safe release of synthetic organisms into the environment?

Since the birth of synthetic biology, the global community has been working relentlessly with the public, social scientists and regulatory experts to ensure that the field offers ethical and beneficial solutions to our civil society.

Some concerns pertain to risks and benefits. Synthetic organisms raise questions about public health, environmental contamination, and even deliberate misuse. Other worries are about risks and benefits, and the very idea of creating synthetic organisms.

In Singapore, the Government has indicated its desire to position the nation as a biological design hub. Recognising that synthetic biology can bring many benefits to the world that cannot be provided by nature, the National Research Foundation, with the Economic Development Board, has created a fertile landscape for synthetic biology to take root.

Their efforts are focused on local talent development in the foundational disciplines of synthetic biology, such as biochemical, metabolic, microbial and genome engineering, and molecular, structural and systems biology.

Like its counterparts in other countries such as the United States and Britain, where significant investments have been made in synthetic biology, Singapore is attracted by the massive global market estimated to be more than US$10 billion (S$14.2 billion) next year.

A little over three years ago, the National University of Singapore (NUS) launched the Synthetic Biology Initiative to bring together teams of doctors, scientists and engineers. Working together, this group of synthetic biologists came up with ways to improve the quality of life of patients seeking medical treatment in Singapore.

The challenges include designing and testing novel therapies to treat cancer, metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, infectious diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and diseases associated with ageing, like Parkinson's.

The group is also setting its sights on using synthetic biology to provide personalised and precision healthcare, which is about finding and giving the right treatment to the right patient.

The initiative has since expanded into the new NUS Synthetic biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI), which was launched officially on Wednesday.

SynCTI biologists and engineers will continue to work with their counterparts in local and global research institutes to create impactful technologies that will positively change a number of industries.

As synthetic biology germinates into a tree of hope for humanity, SynCTI, along with the other global centres and institutions, will continue to engage all sections of civil society, including social scientists and lawmakers, to ensure a stewardship of this new science that is guided by ethics.

If the efforts succeed, gone will be the days of humanity robbing the earth of its wonders and riches.

Instead of getting vanilla from vanilla beans, for instance, one could produce a sustainable version of this favourite flavour from engineered yeast.

Other environmentally sustainable solutions to pressing societal challenges include using microbes to recycle and recover metals like gold from discarded electronics, and re-engineering yeast to make better bread (even designer wine!).

Given the challenges confronting humanity, it is important to balance our needs with an understanding and respect of the world we live in.

But regardless of the debates, it is clear that synthetic biology is the new way to address old, pressing problems of society.

As we move forward together, societal engagement will become an increasingly important way to do so responsibly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2015, with the headline 'Engineering artificial life in the lab'. Print Edition | Subscribe