Why Should You Care About Synthetic Biology?

February 16, 2015 -- BIT Magazine When pitching ideas for DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology) and explaining to people the coming synthetic biology revolution, many people still seem unfamiliar with these concepts and the implications their rapid development will have in the near future.

Synthetic biology has many definitions depending on who you ask, which might be one factor contributing to the general confusion across the public. We'd say it's the standardization of biotechnology, the equivalent of developing standardized electronic components to be used by an entire industry rather than each R&D lab custom building their own parts.

This engineering approach to biology, along with the synthesis of genes rather than the mere splicing together of various pieces of DNA make up this emerging field of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology saved Emma Whitehead's life. She had failed traditional chemotherapy courses and would have surely died if she did not undergo a revolutionary treatment involving the re-engineering of her immune system's T cells. She was treated in 2012 at the age of 6. She is now 9 years old and cancer free.

But what can it do? Dr. Carl June MD of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania believes the work he has done on re-engineering the T cells of cancer stricken patients to identify and destroy tumors is one of the first (if not the first) successful use of synthetic biology. If it is, it is a spectacular first success. Many of the patients Dr. June's team has treated have now been in permanent remission for years. This is particularly impressive considering all his patients had to have failed traditional therapies including chemotherapy in order to qualify for the new procedure in the first place.

The ability to read, edit, write, and reintroduce into a living patient new DNA is perhaps the most profound reason you should care about synthetic biology and the future it will help shape. Single injections could reprogram DNA in your body which is then replicated by your own body's natural cell division, curing you completely and permanently of conditions that once required a lifetime of medication or could not be treated at all.

Lee Adams of the UK will be receiving therapy aimed at rebuilding his heart.
Besides fighting cancer, synthetic biology can reintroduce DNA into your body to help rebuild damaged or aging tissue. In the UK, a revolutionary trial is being conducted by Imperial College to help rebuild the heart muscle cells in patients currently dependent battery-powered mechanical pumps. The traditional "cure" for such patients is a complete heart transplant, however waits are long if not indefinite. Should the new therapy work, transplants would become obsolete.

And if synthetic biology can make old, dying hearts new again, why couldn't it do the same for the rest of the human body? Experiments in rats have already proven it is possible to extend lifespans up to nearly 25%. As the tools and techniques of synthetic biology improve, along with our understanding of our genetic code, similar therapies will undoubtedly be available for humans.

Beside the exciting benefits afforded to human health, synthetic biology may work wonders on the opposite end of the size spectrum, down to the level of common bacteria re-engineered to be sensors, micro-factories, and miniature power plants. Such possibilities are showcased each year at MIT's iGEM competition where a growing number of teams, from university students to DIYbiologists, compete to create the most interesting and useful re-engineered microorganisms.

These sort of projects are the types entry-level local labs might find themselves eventually working on. But the experience, techniques, knowledge, and tools used to do these projects help improve our understanding of more complex challenges like those involved in human health.

Just like with any kind of technology, the dangers are as big as the benefits. The best way to manage these threats is to know as much about the technology as possible, and be directly involved in steering it away from such threats and towards its greatest benefits.

Why should you care about synthetic biology? Because it is the future, and it is already unfolding today. Just like it is essential to know as much as possible about IT today, tomorrow it will be essential to understand design and 3D printing, and the day after that, synthetic biology.

BIT Magazine is a bi-lingual platform for Thailand's maker movement to connect, grow, and collaborate with maker communities abroad. Follow us on Twitter here or on Facebook here.
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