25 May 2014
Synthetic Biology: Promises and Perils
In May 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in San Diego announced the construction of the first “synthetic” organism, a bacterium powered by an artificially synthesized genome.1 While the de novo generation of life remains beyond scientific reach (the JCVI team transplanted the synthetic genome into an existing Mycoplasma recipient cell), the implications of Venter’s experimental success are profound. A milestone in the nascent field of synthetic biology, JCVI’s pioneering achievement has inspired prospects for the creation of highly customized genomes with agricultural, environmental, and pharmaceutical applications. Nonetheless, many years remain before these prospects can become commercial reality; Venter’s synthetic genome cost an estimated $40 million and was the product of over a decade of research. As technical barriers to engineering entire genomes are gradually overcome, the development of regulatory frameworks for mitigating potential risks associated with synthetic organisms will take precedence. These possible hazards extend beyond those posed by the microbes themselves to include the exploitation of synthetic biology for malicious purposes. The advancement of synthetic biology must therefore occur in the context of sustained and intensive dialogue across multiple sectors of society.
When fully realized, synthetic genomics will revolutionize the manufacture of pharmaceutical products and offer innovative solutions to pressing environmental problems. Foremost, the ability to routinely construct and integrate custom genomes will facilitate the development of novel therapeutics. Researchers have already engineered artificial adenoviruses that target cancer cells in culture, and similar approaches involving the introduction of synthetic gene constructs to E. coli are currently being explored.2 Other foreseeable clinical applications include the treatment of bacterial infections with viruses engineered to attack antibiotic-resistant strains and sophisticated behavioral and phenotypic control of cells implanted for regenerative purposes.3 Synthetic genomics will also allow for biosynthesis of conventional drugs and vaccines, reducing the costs associated with these lifesaving products. Moreover, approaches derived from synthetic biology will help address an array of environmental challenges. One strategy entails equipping microbes with synthetic gene circuits for the detection of heavy metals and pesticides. Such contaminants can then be degraded by organisms whose artificial genomes encode the requisite biochemical pathway. Synthetic organisms may also alleviate environmental impacts associated with producing certain chemicals. In 2011, researchers at Genomatica (also in San Diego) successfully constructed an E. coli strain capable of synthesizing 1,4-butanediol, an industrially relevant compound not produced...