Thousands of researchers will descend on Boston this fall for an event billed as the world’s largest gathering of synthetic biologists. The field is evolving so rapidly that even scientists working in it don’t agree on a definition, but at its core synthetic biology involves bringing engineering principles to biotechnology. It’s an approach meant, ultimately, to make it easier for scientists to design, test, and build living parts and systems—even entire genomes.
If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works.
In Boston, scientists and students will showcase so called “synbio” projects developed over the summer, including systems ranging from new takes on natural wonders, like the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a useful form (nitrogen fixation), to newly imagined functions, like an odorless E. coli cell meant to crank out a lemony, edible “wonder protein” containing essential amino acids.
Now in its eleventh year, the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition has grown up alongside synthetic biology itself. Organized by a nonprofit foundation spun out of MIT, the event has acquired a mix of public and private partners, including the FBI, the National Science Foundation, Monsanto, and Autodesk. And no wonder. Synbio could produce both transformative science and big business. By some estimates, the global market for synthetic biology is projected to grow to $16 billion by 2018. Much of the anticipated activity centers on pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tools, chemicals, and energy products, such as biofuels. But in the face of energy and water constraints, a squeeze on cultivable land, and an imperative to limit greenhouse gas emissions, synbio could also transform the way we farm and eat.
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Whereas many genetically modified crops today contain a single engineered gene, synthetic biology makes it easier to generate larger clusters of genes and gene parts. These synthetic clusters can then be engineered by more conventional methods into plants or microbes. As a result, today’s iGEM competitors may be tomorrow’s developers of a new generation of GMOs. By assembling biological systems from genetic code catalogued in online databases and fine-tuned through computer modeling, they could deliver more-nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land, and energy, and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming.
Synthesized DNA can be harnessed for food production in a few ways. Foods and flavorings created through fermentation with engineered yeast are one option. A startup called Muufri, for example, is working on an animal-free milk product; a crowd-funded group of “biohackers” collaborating in community labs in the Bay Area aim to create a vegan cheese; and the Swiss company Evolva is using synthetic biology to develop saffron, vanillin, and stevia. Other companies, like Solazyme, are engineering microalgae to produce algal “butter,” protein-rich flour, and a vegan protein. And in academia, research is under way for clusters of synthesized genes to eventually be inserted directly into plants or into microbes in soil and roots that affect plant growth.
To some, it is a frightening future that has synthesized DNA coming to the farm, market, and dinner table. Environmental blog Grist has called synthetic biology “the next front in the GMO war.” Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that views genetically modified crops as “a direct extension of chemical agriculture,” calls synbio an “extreme form” of genetic engineering.
According to Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, the group is not opposed to the technology, but rather for its responsible use. “We’re at this crossroad,” she said. “We have the opportunity to look back at history and learn from our mistakes.” Transparency is key. “Before synthetic biology gets rubber-stamped as sustainable or natural or a technology which could help mitigate climate change, we need international and national regulations specific to these technologies,” she said. “We need to make sure it’s not going to do more harm than good.”
Indeed, we’re only beginning to unravel the ecological implications of the technology. Experts consulted for a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project say potential risks demanding more research range from the creation of “new or more vigorous pests and pathogens” to “causing irreparable loss or changes in species diversity or genetic diversity within species.”
But assessing these risks in the real world is complex. While some engineered traits “will clearly have great benefit to the environment with little risk, each gene or trait must be assessed on a case by case basis,” said plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, who directs the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis. Experimental organisms are typically be tested in a lab or confined field trials, which may be inadequate to foretell the co-evolution and interplay of a full ecosystem. According to the Wilson Center report, some of the most advanced models in use today for eco-evolutionary dynamics falter beyond a 10-year time frame.
“We don’t know how these organisms will interact with pollinators, soil systems, other organisms,” Perls said. And a self-replicating organism with synthetic DNA, released into an ecosystem could swap genes with wild counterparts. “We need to expect escape; and when that happens, we need to be prepared to deal with it,” she said.
While many people involved with synthetic biology say existing regulation of engineered plants—generally split in the United States among the EPA, FDA, and USDA—will extend adequately to synbio, others see a need to shore up oversight. Policy analysts with the J. Craig Venter Institute, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the University of Virginia, for example, concluded earlier this year that the shift to synthetic biology could leave “many engineered plants without any premarket regulatory review,” because the USDA’s authority depends on a technique that’s outdated for many applications. And the increasing number and diversity of microbes expected to be engineered for commercial use, the authors warned, will challenge the “EPA’s resources, expertise, and perhaps authority to regulate them.”
That report came on the heels of a Kickstarter project called Glowing Plants aimed at producing “sustainable natural lighting” through synthetic biology, which exposed some possible loopholes. The company laid out a plan to derive DNA from fireflies, modify it to work in a flowering plant related to mustard, order the reprogrammed sequence from a company that laser-prints DNA, coat it onto metal particles, and inject it into seeds using a device called a gene gun. And they promised to distribute some 600,000 of these seeds to supporters.
“Is it legal? Yes it is!” the Glowing Plants team wrote. FDA regulation was out the window here because the plant was not meant to be eaten, and EPA said the project would be a matter for the USDA. But because the genes are transferred via gene-gun (a technique developed after guidelines were established in the late 1980s), the plant falls outside the USDA’s purview. As a spokesperson for the agency later told the journal Nature, “Regarding synthetic biologics, if they do not pose a plant risk, APHIS [the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] does not regulate it.” The landscape is different overseas. “Regrettably,” the Glowing Plants team wrote, “the European Union has tighter restrictions in place so we can’t send seeds there as a reward.”