[Paleopsych] WP: Researchers Creating Life From Scratch

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Fri Aug 26 22:35:08 UTC 2005

Researchers Creating Life From Scratch

They're called "synthetic biologists" and they boldly claim the ability to make 
never-before-seen living things, one genetic molecule at a time.

They're mixing, matching and stacking DNA's chemical components like 
microscopic Lego blocks in an effort to make biologically based computers, 
medicines and alternative energy sources. The rapidly expanding field is 
confounding the taxonomists' centuries-old system of classifying species and 
raising concerns about the new technology's potential for misuse.

Though scientists have been combining the genetic material of two species for 
30 years now, their work has remained relatively simplistic.

Scientists might add one foreign gene to an organism to produce a drug like 
insulin. The technique is more art than science given the brute trial-and-error 
it takes to create cells that make drugs.

So a new breed of biologists is attempting to bring order to the hit-and-miss 
chaos of genetic engineering by bringing to biotechnology the same engineering 
strategies used to build computers, bridges and buildings.

The idea is to separate cells into their fundamental components and then 
rebuild new organisms, a much more complex way of genetic engineering.

The burgeoning movement is attracting big money and some of the biggest names 
in biology, many of whom are attending the "Life Engineering Symposium" that 
begins Friday in San Francisco.

"Synthetic biology is genetic engineering rethought," said Harvard Medical 
Center researcher George Church, a leader in the field. "It challenges the 
notion of what's natural and what's synthetic."

Already, synthetic biologists have created a polio virus and another smaller 
virus by stitching together individual genes purchased from biotechnology 

Now, researchers are getting closer to creating more complex living things with 
actual utility.

In Israel, scientists have created the world's smallest computer by engineering 
DNA to carry out mathematical functions.

J. Craig Venter, the entrepreneurial scientist who mapped the human genome, 
announced last month that he intends to string together genes to create from 
scratch novel organisms that can produce alternative fuels such as hydrogen and 

With a $42.6 million grant that originated at the Bill and Melinda Gates 
Foundation, Berkeley researchers are creating a new malaria drug by removing 
genetic material of the E. coli bacterium and replacing it with genes from 
wormwood and yeast.

"We're building parts that can be assembled into devices and devices that can 
be turned into systems," said Jay Keasling, head of the Lawrence Berkeley 
National Laboratory's Berkeley synthetic biology department, which was created 
last year.

Keasling, who doubles as a chemical engineering professor at the University of 
California, Berkeley, hopes to create never-before-seen living molecules by 
fusing genes from the three species _ a new breed of bacteria capable of 
spitting out malaria-fighting artemisinin, a chemical now found only in small 
traces in the wormwood plant.

Artemisinin has been extracted from finely ground sweet wormwood for more than 
2,000 years as a treatment for a variety of ailments, but the method is 
expensive, time consuming and limited by access to wormwood, which is found 
mainly in China and Vietnam.

Keasling has a similar project in the works to synthetically create a compound 
now found in Samoan trees, one that shows promise in fighting AIDS.

Such efforts are attracting more than grant money.

A group of topflight venture capitalists led by Vinod Khosla of the Menlo 
Park-based Perkins, Caufield & Byers invested $13 million in Codon Devices of 
Cambridge, Mass., which was co-founded by Keasling and Church. Keasling also 
co-founded Amyris Biotechnologies of Emeryville to build microbes that will 
produce novel or rare drugs.

Venter, meanwhile, has launched Synthetic Genomics Inc. with Nobel laureate 
Hamilton Smith and will compete with Codon and several other recent startups to 
commercialize the technology.

But with success also comes ethical questions.

For example, national security experts and even synthetic biologists themselves 
fret that rogue scientists or "biohackers" could create new biological weapons 
_ like deadly viruses that lack natural foes. They also worry about innocent 
mistakes _ organisms that could potentially create havoc if allowed to 
reproduce outside the lab.

"There are certainly a lot of national security implications with synthetic 
biology," said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a researcher at the University of 
Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity.

Researchers are casting about for ways to self-police the field before it 
really takes off. One solution could be to require the few companies that sell 
genetic material to register with some official entity and report biologists 
who order DNA strains with weapons potential.

The Arthur P. Sloan Foundation in June awarded the Venter Institute, the 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Center for Strategic and 
International Studies a $570,000 grant to study the social implications of the 
new field.

"There are a cascade of ecological issues," said Laurie Zoloth, a bioethics 
professor at Northwestern University. "Synthetic biology is like iron: You can 
make sewing needles and you can make spears. Of course, there is going to be 
dual use."

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