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...
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...th a number of risks, and careful evaluation of these hazards must accompany the field’s development. With proper regulatory oversight and safeguards against deliberate misuse, synthetic biology is bound to transform the human condition.
1. Pennisi E. Genomics. Synthetic genome brings new life to bacterium. Science. 2010;328(5981):958.
2. König H, Frank D, Heil R, Coenen C. Synthetic genomics and synthetic biology applications between hopes and concerns. Curr Genomics. 2013;14(1):11-24.
3. Ruder WC, Lu T, Collins JJ. Synthetic biology moving into the clinic. Science. 2011;333(6047):1248-52.
4. Yim H, Haselbeck R, Niu W, et al. Metabolic engineering of Escherichia coli for direct production of 1,4-butanediol. Nat Chem Biol. 2011;7(7):445-52.
5. Tucker JB, Zilinskas RA. The promise and perils of synthetic biology. New Atlantis. 2006;12:25-45.
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