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The pervasive impact of Biotech – V

The engineering cycle used in synthetic biology (centre) with cartoons illustrating some of the key technologies and ways of working that now help accelerate each phase of the cycle. Image credit: Fankang Meng & Tom Ellis, Nature Communications

Synthetic Biology was born at the turn of the century but it got serious in 2010 when researchers at the JCVI (J.Craig Venter Institute) were able to create, by syntheses, the first fully working bacteria genome.

The problem facing synthetic biology was to move from “syntheses by chance” to an industrial process able to deliver what was intended, in the same way that we can manufacture an electronic circuit, placing billion of transistors and connecting one another in exactly the right (intended) place.
This was a huge problem. Consider that the sequencing of the genome is achieved through a process that produces a tremendous amount of sequences, created by chopping and then multiplying the DNA string. The resulting chunks (each one slightly different from the others in terms of length, hence of bases) are decoded and then recomposed to form a digital copy of the original DNA string using plenty of processing power and statistical computations. This approach clearly does not work in the opposite direction, that of assembling a specific DNA sequence.

In this ten years results have been impressive. In 2016 Nielsen et al at MIT created Cello, a software and all the required tools that could be used to design a DNA string on a computer and then to manufacture it (Computer Aided Design). I particularly like the title of their paper: Biomolecular and computational frameworks for genetic circuits design!

Indeed, this is the objective of synthetic biology: being able to design “life” as we would be designing a silicon chip. We are not there yet, not even close if you are thinking of designing a pink frog that could whistle and become a house pet! What we can do is to design some basic building blocks, like gene and modify existing ones.

One of the hurdle is to understand what a gene really means, in other word what would happen if I change a C in a ACG codon into a G creating a AGG codon (codons are triplets of amino acids with the letter C representing Cytosine, A Adenosine and G Guanine)? And more generally, how is a genotype (the set of genes creating a life form) connected to its phenotype (the shape and behaviour of that life form)?.

Today synthetic biology is used for developing (and testing) new medication: today’s Covid-19 vaccines based on mRNA (Moderna and Pfizer) have been developed thanks to the progress in synthetic biology (the first “artificial” vaccine using this technology was applied by Novartis back in 2013). It is used in the production of  rubber for tyres, in the production of acrylic acid -using bacteria- an important chemical used in a variety of industrial processes, including some of our dress fabric, it is used in the production of biofuels,…

These are just a few examples, the list is long and getting longer any day. In a nutshell, we are learning in a few decades what Nature has endeavoured for billion of years (making trillion of mistakes on the way!) but we are still in the very infancy of this technology whose potential power is greater than our current understanding. Hence the concern and the caution that is required in its application.




About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.