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Post-Pandemic Scenarios – XLVI – Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is picking up stream by the convergence of increasing understanding of systems biology – natural genes interactions resulting in the phenotype-, metabolic engineering -creating new genes networks-, and computer science – enabling creation of meaning out of data. Image credit: Cornell Alliance for Science

The last Megatrend presented in the FTI’s report focusses on Synthetic Biology and its application in Agriculture. Synthetic Biology is the idea, now a practice, of being able to create/modify life in a bottom up way, composing the strand of life, DNA and in some cases RNA, in ways that result in a living “thing”. Sometimes this new living thing might be the result of a modification of an existing living thing or it can be a chimera, resulting from the mixing of parts taken from several living things. Notice that all of this has happened, is happening in Nature.  Life is the result of random combination of molecules that by chance reached the stage where they could self replicate, modify and become selected through external forces. New bacterial species are born, at this very moment, by being infected by viruses and inheriting their brand new DNA from both the infected bacteria and the virus DNA (or RNA).

You don’t need to look far to see a chimera organism: we are just that. Our DNA is a mixture of our father and our mother, our mitochondria DNA derives from our mother and from bacteria that have become embedded in our ancestors’ cells.

What is new with synthetic biology is the acceleration of change. What would have taken hundreds of thousands, million of years, may be accomplished in a few hours. What we are seeing today is the result of this continuous change, we call it evolution, What we are not seeing is the much much broader set of “mistakes” resulting from combinations that were not fit for the environment and died out.

The big issue is exactly this one: by applying synthetic biology we can create something new but … we are not sure what we are creating. As Nature did in the past, and it is still doing every day now, the creation of new species is blind. It is only afterward that one can assess the impact.

At the core of the Natural evolution is the random change/swap in genes. However, the selection does not depend on the genes per se but on the way they concur to create the phenotype, that is how that living things interact with the environment. Our understanding of the relation genotype-phenotype is still very limited: we have the tool to modify a gene (changing a single base, a codon or a fragment) as well as to add/delete a gene from a genome but we do not know how this is going to impact the phenotype (i.e. what the result is going to be).

The increasing availability of data derived from the sequencing of the genome (by the way, just last week we have finally sequenced the whole human genome, although its sequencing was announced some 20 years ago!) and the use of artificial intelligence is expected to result, by the end of this decade, into a much greater understanding of the relation genotype-phenotype. If this will happen (there is no doubt this will be -eventually- the case, the big question is “when?”) we will be able to design life. We already have an increasing powerful toolbox allowing us to “cut and paste” DNA and RNA strands, thus to modify the genome. Let’s not forget the amazing success of the Covid-19 vaccine. Using modified mRNA researchers have been able to instruct our cells to produce the virus spike protein that in turns stimulates the creation of B and T (cells) antibodies. This is a first example of synthetic biology: we are teaching our own cells what to do (in this case produce a new protein -the spike protein- that they never produced before, missing the instructions to do so).

Notice in this example, that I am using to emphasise the value of synthetic biology, the use of:

  • system biology, our understanding of the working of our cells and the way they produce proteins – by decoding the mRNA;
  • metabolic engineering, used to create the mRNA that is injected as vaccine, that in turns entering cells will instruct them to produce the spike protein;
  • computer science, the whole process of designing and manufacturing could not be done without massive use of computers and computer science

The FTI’s report predicts that mRNA will be the way forward for vaccine. Being designed by software it can also be changed in subtle ways, as an example to respond to virus variations. The limited changes makes it possible to reduce the testing in-vivo (a good deal of testing is done through AI in a matter of days). The Covid-19 crises has accelerated the deployment of mRNA: in its absence it would have probably taken five to ten years to move from the lab to clinical practice. This acceleration will lead to a variety of other vaccines, with a malaria mRNA based vaccine already in the making (in 2019 over 400,000 people died of malaria and there were over 200 million episodes of malaria globally).

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.