Artificial life spawns billion-dollar industry

Investors are increasingly attracted to synthetic biology's market potential, with record sums moving into a field that could deliver novel drugs, materials, chemicals and even perfumes.

LONDON (REUTERS) - Growing designer babies and bringing back the woolly mammoth. Such thoughts that were once considered fiction are now a looming reality for scientists who are steps away from building artificial life.

Experts meeting in London this week said that the cost of synthesising DNA was now much less prohibitive

"When I first started teaching at MIT, building one letter of DNA from scratch cost US$4 a letter. Today it's four cents a letter. And the consequence of that is, I used to order designs for my students, say 20,000 base pairs of DNA. This year, this spring, I'm ordering 10 million base pairs of DNA." said Drew Endy, Associate Professor of Bioengineering, Stanford University.

There was a breakthrough last month when scientists announced that they've 'written' almost the entire genome of baker's yeast which is a big step because of the similarities between yeast and human cells.

"We all know yeast is an important organism because it makes beer, it makes bread and wine, and so on. So what might yeast 2.0 be good at making? And the answer is not totally obvious yet but it seems like it will be useful for making any medicine that's now sourced from a plant; any plant natural product for example, could probably be made in a fermenter with brewing. And yeast 2.0 with make that process more reliable, more readily distributable." added Endy.

Scientists are aiming to synthesise a human genome in the next 10 years.

Synthetic biology, especially anything to do with food or the environment, does face criticism. But advocates say this is unfounded.

"A lot of folks are concerned with things that you might take in - would that change your DNA? Of course not, you have your own DNA. If you eat an apple where we have silenced an enzyme so that when you slice the apple it doesn't turn brown; you can eat that apple and it tastes as good as any other, probably better." said Thomas Bostick, Senior Vice President (Environment Sector), Intrexon.

Nevertheless, synthetic biology raises all sorts of ethical questions and right now there is no proper structure to deal with that problem.

The next part may come down to the public's appetite for tinkering with life.