How synthetic biology is shaping the future

Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionise our lives, but how are scientists setting about making this happen?

Writer: Harry Dodd
Editor: Zehra Evcil
Artist: Iona Jenkins

It may seem like the plot of a particularly far-fetched science fiction novel, but artificial life is on its way. Imagine a world where viruses have no power, and disease is only encountered in history books. We have a long way to go until we reach this point, but pioneering researchers in Biotechnology are laying the foundations.

Recently the US based National Institute of Health awarded almost 2 million dollars of funding to a Rice University researcher who aims to create cells able to produce custom Amino Acids, unlike any found in nature. With these, a virtually endless array of problems can be tackled. Take genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, for example. One of the most controversial issues surrounding GM crops, is the potential for altered genes to spread into the surrounding environment, which could result in widespread ecological damage. However, this could be circumvented by altering an organism’s genome, so that it requires lab-made amino acids to produce proteins essential for survival. As a result, any genes that ‘leak’ into the environment will not survive long, as they won’t have the requisite nutrients to survive. Researchers at Yale University have already managed to engineer bacteria in this manner, so the leap to multicellular organisms is foreseeable.

Others are more ambitious with their plans for engineering life. Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School believes that synthetic biology could be used for everything from resurrecting mammoths to creating the next step in human evolution. Possibly, his most ambitious, and practical, theory is the idea of mirror organisms. However, this is not a new idea at all. Louis Pasteur first postulated that life was asymmetric in 1846. Almost every molecule in your body is chiral, meaning it is either left or right handed. As a result, your body can only interact correctly with other molecules of the same ‘handedness’.

Drastic consequences can arise when we get this wrong, such as the thalidomide crisis which was caused by the drug containing both chiral forms of itself. While the correct form resulted in a restful night’s sleep, the incorrect one caused horrific birth defects.

Professor George Church believes this can be used to our advantage, however. If we were to take every chiral molecule in the body and flip it, in theory, we would end up with an organism completely immune to disease. This is because viruses would be unable to interact with the mirror cells and other pathogens would find no sugars available to digest, resulting in an inability to replicate and hence extinction. 

Obviously this is a long way off, as currently only a few proteins have been produced in reverse, let alone entire cellular machinery. In order to survive, our mirror organism would also need to find mirror food, as regular food would be indigestible, with its new enzymes. Nevertheless, the prospect of a world free from the clutches of disease is, theoretically, possible. 

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