Sunday, September 24, 2006

Synthetic biology: Biobricks, manufactured drugs via synthetic metabolic pathsways, artificial E. coli, and, of course, terrorists

Synthetic biology | Life 2.0 | "The DNA of a BioBrick contains a combination of genes that acts as a standardised component. When translated into protein in a cell, it makes that cell do something—and that something is often more than just “make more of protein X”. In particular, Dr Endy is interested in switches and control systems that regulate other genes. Such switches are the basis of electronics and he hopes they may one day become the basis of an industrialised synthetic biology."

Basically, they're working on standardized components for human bodies: DNA pieces as "widgets." Now, that's very interesting on its own; but what's also interesting to me about this article is the mention that MIT has a Registry of Standard Biological Parts, "open wetware".

Other interesting projects:

Craig Venter is working on synthesizing a working bacterial genome within two years.

Peter Carr of MIT and Farren Isaacs of Harvard Medical School plan to recode E. coli to eliminate its redundant codons (that is, more than one codon signals that a protein is complete, and this seems inefficient to these engineers since one should be sufficient: the resulting bacterium, in theory, will be more efficient). Hmm. Not being all that knowledgeble about DNA (I have extracted it from plants, and it looks like mucous, and I have done some calculations or other long long ago in an undergraduate genetics class), I still can't imagine the efficiency argument is all that effective (quite possibly the writer of the article misrepresented their purpose). Obviously, the most efficient design of all is one that is going to work properly even if one or two of the safeties fail. And the safeties can't all be the same, or they'd all fail. I'd think an organism would be much better off with several sets of codons capable of doing the same thing. So if one codon somehow is damaged, another can step in and stop protein production from going haywire. But that's just me.

Finally, on the risks of malicious biohackers, the article concludes that the "Sloan Foundation has paid for a report, coming out soon, on the risks and social implications of synthetic biology." That, too, promises to be interesting.


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