The Implications of Synthetic Biology

author: Drew Endy, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Oct. 12, 2011,   recorded: March 2006,   views: 65
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There’s no mistaking Drew Endy’s profession: “I like to make things -- that’s what I do.” From his engineer’s perspective, the slow and painful methods of bioengineering demand a solution. Endy hopes to refine the tools necessary to move the field forward. “We’re going from looking at the living world as only coming from nature, to a subset of the living world being produced by engineers who design and build hopefully useful living artifacts according to our specifications,” says Endy.

Thirty years ago, scientists figured out how to use enzymes to cut and paste genetic material, leading to recombinant DNA technology. But the techniques involved are painfully slow, requiring very specific physical materials and “know-how via the guild-like structure of biology.” Endy points to methods coming on line that will make it easier to design and build biological systems.

One is DNA synthesis, in which a machine fed information and sugars generates a physical piece of DNA. It reminds Endy of the “matter compilers” seen on Star Trek, where “food materializes from a cubby in the wall.” This technique will allow the economical production of long sequences of DNA. Another key ingredient in bioengineering will be the development of standards for making and measuring DNA, in the same way that machining hardware came to be governed by common standards in the 19th century. Endy also suggests that biotechnology will be increasingly informed by useful abstraction, so that scientists will manipulate raw materials less and refined and repackaged materials more, in order to make new things simply and more reliably. These advances will also enable bioengineers to “be experts in our own domains without having to be masters of everything.”

But as bioengineering becomes easier, and “people start to engineer biology,” we’ll need to worry about new issues, says Endy: Will people synthesize pathogens from scratch? Will groups pool knowledge legally? Will there be accreditation and oversight of those who create biological systems?

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