…The first thing to understand about the new science of synthetic biology is that it’s not really a new science; it’s a brazen call to conduct an existing one much more ambitiously. For almost 40 years, genetic engineers have been decoding DNA and transplanting individual genes from one organism into another. (One company, for example, famously experimented with putting a gene from an arctic flounder into tomatoes to make a variety of frost-resistant tomatoes.) But synthetic biologists want to break out of this cut-and-paste paradigm altogether. They want to write brand-new genetic code, pulling together specific genes or portions of genes plucked from a wide range of organisms — or even constructed from scratch in a lab — and methodically lacing them into a single set of genetic instructions. Implant that new code into an organism, and you should be able to make its cells do and produce things that nothing in nature has ever done or produced before.
As commercial applications for this kind of science materialize and venture capitalists cut checks, the hope is that synthetic biologists can engineer new, living tools to address our most pressing problems. Already, for example, one of the field’s leading start-ups, a Bay Area company called LS9, has remade the inner workings of a sugar-eating bacterium so that its cells secrete a chemical compound that is almost identical to diesel fuel. The company calls it a “renewable petroleum.” Another firm, Amyris Biotechnologies, has similarly tricked out yeast to produce an antimalarial drug. (LS9, backed by Chevron, aims to bring its product to market in the next couple of years. Amyris’s drug could be available by the end of this year, through a partnership with Sanofi-Aventis.) Stephen Davies, a synthetic biologist and venture capitalist who served as a judge at iGEM, compares the buzz around the field to the advent of steam power during the Victorian era. “Right now,” he says, “synthetic biology feels like it might be able to power everything. People are trying things; kettles are exploding. Everyone’s attempting magic right and left.”
Genetic engineers have looked at nature as a set of finished products to tweak and improve — a tomato that could be made into a slightly better tomato. But synthetic biologists imagine nature as a manufacturing platform: all living things are just crates of genetic cogs; we should be able to spill all those cogs out on the floor and rig them into whatever new machinery we want. It’s a jarring shift, making the ways humankind has changed nature until now seem superficial. If you want to build a bookcase, you can find a nice tree, chop it down, mill it, sand the wood and hammer in some nails. “Or,” says Drew Endy, an iGEM founder and one of synthetic biology’s foremost visionaries, “you could program the DNA in the tree so that it grows into a bookshelf.”…
[continues in the New York Times]