Home / Blog / Post-Pandemic Scenarios – XLIX – Synthetic Biology 4

Post-Pandemic Scenarios – XLIX – Synthetic Biology 4

Clusters of most used keywords in ERC projects in the field of computational biology. Image credit: ERC EU

Computational Biology

As remarked in the previous posts on Synthetic Biology, this is an area where no progress would be possible without the support of computers and AI. More than that: in the last few years progress has been fostered by computational approaches to the point of creating a new discipline, computational Biology. As shown in the graphic, taken from a European Research Council article presenting the funding dedicated to synthetic biology, Computational Biology is applied to, and leverages on, a variety of technologies.

The FTI’s report highlights several -expected- advances of Computational Biology in the coming years, from the possibility to predict the protein folding that will be crucial to the design of new drugs (watch the video and get more info on AlphaFold) to super-fast molecules discovery that can be manufactured by modifying bacteria. The MIT-Broad Foundry was enrolled by DARPA to prove that it is possible in a short time (three months) to re-engineer bacteria to produce new molecules (not known in nature). The challenge was met by the production of 6 new molecules (out of 10) within 90 days.

Modifying a cell, using CRISPR as screwdriver and computational biology to figure out what to change, is an established technology whose progress will continue through his decade both is improving the “screwdriver” and the knowledge derived from computational biology. The next step is, obviously, start from scratch to design first, and then create, a brand new cell having a specific set of desired property. This is what is usually called Designer Cells. The name wants to highlight that these cells do not exist in Nature, they are the result of a design (cells derive from random mutation and selection leading to evolution, there is no “design” involved in a cell).

The amount of cell diversity is staggering, yet what we are seeing is a tiny fraction of the gazillion of cells that random mutations generated in the last 3.6 billion years. However, this gazillion cells are not exhausting the complete set of cells that would be possible given physical and chemical constraints.  For a cell to exist you need to have a parent cell: gaps are not possible in the landscape of evolution. This is not so for designer cells since you can design any type of cell from scratch as long as it is compatible with physics and chemistry and the ensemble can work as a single piece. This dramatically expands the set of possibility (whilst modifying a cell is just “accelerating” the creation of a new cell).

Indeed, technology makes it possible to create a synthetic cell “cloning” an existing one.  Researchers in Switzerland and in the US (North Carolina) have been working to create a synthetic version of the Covid-19 virus as a way to accelerate its study. The DNA of the virus is now available on line and with the kind of synthetic biology toolkit around (and a limited understanding on how to use them) you can create a synthetic version with as little as 30,000$. This is a little amazing and a lot scaring!

According to the FTI’s report we should be seeing in the coming years the creation of cells, of life, out of the blue. This is also another case of opening a Pandora’s vase and both ethical and safety issues arise.

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.