New Yorker: Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?

Cappi Williamson of The New Yorker says:
 Images 2009 09 28 P233 090928 R18840 P233 In “A Life of Its Own," Michael Specter explores the opportunities and challenges posed by the emerging field of synthetic biology. “No scientific achievement has promised so much, and none has come with greater risks or clearer possibilities for deliberate abuse,” Specter writes. Synthetic biologists “see cells as hardware, and genetic code as the software required to make them run,” he notes. “By using gene-sequence information and synthetic DNA, they are attempting to reconfigure the metabolic pathways of cells to perform entirely new functions, such as manufacturing chemicals and drugs.”

One team of biologists, led by Jay Keasling at Berkeley, has had great success with amorphadine, the precursor to the malaria medicine artemisinin: they constructed a microbe to manufacture the compound, and by 2012 they will have produced enough artemisinin that the cost for a course of treatment will drop from as much as ten dollars to less than a dollar. “We have got to the point in human history where we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us,” Keasling tells Specter. He envisions a much larger expansion of the discipline, engineering cells to manufacture substances like biofuels.

Another scientist, Drew Endy of Stanford, has collaborated with colleagues to start the BioBricks Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed to register and develop standard parts for assembling DNA. Endy predicts that if synthetic biology succeeds, “our ultimate solution to the crisis of health-care costs will be to redesign ourselves so that we don’t have so many problems to deal with,” but he also acknowledges the risks inherent in the field. Synthetic biology, Endy tells Specter, is “the coolest platform science has ever produced, but the questions it raises are the hardest to answer.” Yet he also argues that “the potential is great enough, I believe, to convince people it’s worth the risk.” Specter writes, “The planet is in danger, and nature needs help.” While biological engineering will never “solve every problem we expect it to solve,” he writes, “what worked for artemisinin can work for many of the products our species will need to survive.”

(Illustration by Joost Swarte)

Where will synthetic biology lead us?