If the notion of hacking DNA sounds like genetic engineering, think again. Genetic engineering generally involves moving a preexisting gene from one organism to another, an activity Endy calls DNA bashing. For all its impressive and profitable results, DNA bashing is hardly creative. Proper engineering, by contrast, means designing what you want to make, analyzing the design to be sure it will work, and then building it from the ground up. And that's what synthetic biology is about: specifying every bit of DNA that goes into an organism to determine its form and function in a controlled, predictable way, like etching a microprocessor or building a bridge. The goal, as Endy puts it, is nothing less than to "reimplement life in a manner of our choosing."For an overview, check out the comic "Adventures in Synthetic Biology" and Discover's December interview with chemical engineer and synthetic biologist Jay Keasling.
When bioengineered microorganisms show up in science fiction, they often threaten to slip from our control and run amok - think of the noocytes in Greg Bear's Blood Music or the polluting bacteria in Neal Stephenson's Zodiac (among many examples). Computer science professor and science fiction writer Rudy Rucker doesn't think we should worry so much. in his essay in this week's issue of Newsweek, he argues that any organisms we build will have a hard time competing out in the wild.
One big worry is what nanotechnologists call the “gray-goo problem.” What’s to stop a particularly virulent SynBio organism from eating everything on earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—and they’ve been practicing for a very long time.Rucker may be right that synthetic organisms would lose a fight with critters that evolved naturally, but they won't have any natural predators either. The fact that antibiotics are used fairy indiscriminately all over the world just might open up niches in which the simpler synthetics can thrive. To my mind it only makes sense to take precautions, in case our creations turn out to be tougher than expected.
The fact that the SynBio organisms are likely to have simplified Tinkertoy DNA doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be faster and better. It’s more likely that they’ll be dumber and less adaptable. I have a mental image of germ-size MIT nerds putting on gangsta clothes and venturing into alleys to try some rough stuff. And then they meet up with the homies who’ve been keeping it real for a billion years or so.
Read Rucker's whole essay for more about the cool stuff synthetic biology could be used for.
Tags:science fiction, synthetic biology