Progress continues: last year, teams of MIT students attempted to create oscillators that turned a jellyfish gene for fluorescence on and off so that E. coli cells containing the gene visibly blinked under a microscope. And this year a different group of MIT students attempted to genetically program a sheet of identical cells to recognize their relative spatial arrangement so that groups of them could fluoresce, making patterns on the sheet.
Obviously, these and similar feats at other universities are mere lab demonstrations of this promising technology. But the next few years may see applications that include the creation of cells that are genetically altered to deliver drugs within a person’s body: one still theoretical idea is to program a cell to sense blood sugar levels and produce just the right levels of insulin in response. Another application could be in chemical manufacturing-biologically based factories in which worker cells follow molecular messages detailing which chemicals to produce.
The second example of synthetic biology is a rather different engineering project at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, MD, founded by Craig Venter (yes, the same Craig Venter who sequenced the human genome). Venter and colleagues are working with a very simple bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium, which has only 517 genes. They knocked out genes from the bacterium in an effort to construct a laboratory organism that has the minimal number of genes needed to sustain life and thereby identify a set of functional requirements for a living system. Their goal is to mix and match genes with those functions from different organisms to create a unique living system. Now that’s engineering!
If they succeed, the benefits will be myriad. Right now, Knight, Endy, Venter, and others are limited to experimenting with existing cell lines. This is similar to saying every wheeled vehicle has to use a chassis from some finite set of automobiles, like Detroit’s offerings from 1970. But when it becomes possible to engineer whole new cells from basic components, future engineers will be able to create custom organisms, their own DeLoreans, to perform specific biochemical tasks, such as producing hydrogen.
Where does this lead? Whereas now we grow a tree, cut it down, and build a table, in fifty years we might simply grow a table. As more engineers work on biological systems, our industrial infrastructure will be transformed. Fifty years ago it was based on coal and steel. Now it is based on silicon and information. Fifty years from now it will be based on living systems. Sort of like a new agricultural age, only of a radically different kind.