Synthetic Biology – 5 Emerging Issues about Artificial DNA

I can create DNA. Brand spankin’ new. Piece by piece. Then insert it into bacteria and let it take over. Reproduce, propagate, see what happens. All fun and games really. I can do it with my good friend Escherichia coli (E. coli – the nice one, not the nasty infectious one).

I can play around with my new DNA. Try different genes, mix up the order of the base pairs, add things, take things away…and all from the comfort of my living room.

Um, that’s a good thing?

I don’t know yet, and that’s one reason for today’s “CheerIt or FearIt” – I’m not sure whether to cheer for SynBio or fear it.

Okay, ever the technological optimist, I’m all for creating artificial life forms, organic or electronic. Heck, we’ve got to replace all the ones we’re killing off, right?

(Yes, that’s me being sarcastic.)

But back to Synthetic Biology. First, a quick description, and then 5 things to help decide whether to cheer or fear it.

What is Synthetic Biology? It’s a scientific field that combines biology and engineering principles to create new kinds of DNA. Not restructured DNA – it doesn’t take, like, a dog’s DNA and modify it – it takes DNA “parts” and allows you to put them together like Lego pieces. These parts are genetic sequences that perform certain functions. They are categorized and stored in libraries, and available for pretty much anyone to buy and assemble as they see fit.

Some people are doing it in their own living rooms. Do-it-yourself (DIY) biology.

Kids are doing it for international jamborees. Yup. No foolin’.

Major corporations are pouring money into developing new organisms.

There aren’t ANY kinds of national or international laws in place to regulate it.

Cheer or fear?

Here are 5 things going on right now to help you decide.

Voice your opinions. Cast your vote today.

1. Do-It-Yourself Biology – Create DNA in your living room!

Gosh, yes. Searching for that hard-to-find genetic sequence? Look no further than, a “collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems.” In case you need a primer about SynBio before launching your home-lab, and if you happen to like them in comic book format, then be sure to check out “Adventures in Synthetic Biology” by Drew Endy and Isadora Deese, with art by Chuck Wadey (a very cool concept artist). And if you’re looking for a little online support, you can join, the self-proclaimed “hacker space for biotech,” or check out, an “Institution for the Do-It-Yourself Biologist.” Everything you need to get started building DNA is at your fingertips, with some tips on responsible development available at However you decide to proceed, what you decide to build is up to you.

2. New Economies, Renewable Resources, and Replacing Small Countries with Major Corporations – Renewable? Yes. Costly? Perhaps.

Proponents of SynBio promise remarkable advances in the future – cells that produce limitless amounts of biofuel, can sense toxins, eat cancer, or release precise amounts of insulin or other biomeds within a person’s body. I’m a technological optimist, but a promises skeptic; in the words of Naked Eyes, “All of your promises / You knew you’d never keep / Promises, promises / Why do I believe?” DuPont is doing a pretty good job producing plastics from biomass instead of petroleum, called bioplastics. Of course, one DuPont Sorona biorefinery apparently requires 40,000 acres of biomass to produce its annual yield of bioplastic. Is the tradeoff worth it? Other resources that could be replaced by SynBio include synthetic versions of artemisinin, palm oil, rubber, vanilla, and other commodities supported by smaller-scale, indigenous agriculture, which could possibly be replaced by major corporations such as Amyris, Solazyme, Unilever, Genecor, and Michelin. So who will control the bio-economy in the future, and what will happen to these agricultural societies that depend on them?

3. New Organisms, Old Environment – What’s a few new bugs between friends?

What happens when new bacteria or other synthetic organisms are introduced into the environment? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. Synthetic algae are grown in greenhouses and outside in open pools, so the potential for accidental release is not just possible, it’s probable. We don’t know what their survival and persistence rates would be out in the open, how they would be transported throughout the environment, their interactions with known species, or how they might evolve. Algae might be the most benign example, but what about accidental release of something more complex, like bugs designed to neutralize industrial waste?

4. The Ethics of It All – Worth debate? Or do the benefits trump the risks?

Biological weapons. The ethics of creating artificial life. Environmental damage. Tumor-killing bacteria that run amok in a person’s body. The risks are as scary as the benefits are promising. So now what? Do we continue despite the risks? The precautionary principle and groups like Friends of the Earth and ETC Group suggest a moratorium on research until some regulations and standards are in place. How do we proceed? Free and unfettered information sharing, or with cautious and regulated research standards?

5. Cyborgs – Resistance is futile.

Teams at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have created a strain of E. coli that can transfer electrons between its cell membranes and inorganic materials. Futuristic implications include electronic devices integrated directly into, and interfaced with, the human body. Implanted cell phones, augmented internet vision, enhanced auditory capabilities – feel free to hot-rod the machine that is your body. What would you buy? Given all the coffee I drink, I’d have to opt for the sacral nerve stimulation first to control my overactive bladder, but then I’d splurge for some deep brain stimulation to help come up with some interesting blog topics.

So what do you think? Is this a good thing or not?

4 thoughts on “Synthetic Biology – 5 Emerging Issues about Artificial DNA

  1. We can’t even find cures to our most deadly diseases, so I’d say until we’re able to get those under control, we have no business introducing new risks into our environment so negligently. I think a more controlled introduction of these practices might be beneficial, but this whole thing of “do it yourself at home” is just crazy.

    • I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it almost seems like synbio has gone viral. I imagine the pundits would argue that we need to develop synthetic organisms to cure some of those diseases, but the counter-argument is that it’s difficult to gauge the risks of those new organisms. In developing a cancer-eating virus, you may very well create something that decides to eat more than just the cancer! That might be an extreme scenario, but I have heard it before in professional settings.

      I think that, like most things, synbio is experiencing free reign right now, but soon we will start to see regulations coming into play as public awareness grows. But, then again, sometimes it takes something tragic to trigger that awareness. So what’s the balance? How can we accelerate the pace of this field, but temper it with good judgement? I think a lot of that is left to the research community to figure out before the politics of it all start to place restrictions where restrictions aren’t needed; i.e., before un-informed decisions are made about its future.

      Thanks for your comment, Diane. Your insights are highly reflective of some of the hot topics involved.

  2. Pingback: A Moon Colony by 2020: Can it be done? « Science for Fiction: Where Reality Fuels Imagination

  3. Pingback: The Digital DNA Revolution – Instant Knowledge & REAL Internet Pets « Science for Fiction

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