April 2008 Archives

When synthetic biologists talk about what they are doing, they often point to the analogies between their work and what happens in engineering, particularly electronics engineering. You can point to some processes in living cells and describe them in the same terms as digital logic or oscillators - the kind of functions you find in a lot of electronic circuits.

The analogies don't stop there: the aim of synthetic biology is to develop a kit of parts from which you can build organic systems able to make fuels, drugs and chemical sensors. What are the parts? Professor Richard Kitney of Imperial College, London says: "We mean encoded biological functions: usually we mean modified bacterial DNA."

That modified DNA is injected into bacteria which has the machinery already in place to do the next bit, which is to make the parts work together to create simple circuits and, ultimately, create a system that does something. The annual iGEM competition, where undergraduate teams cook up modified bacteria to do unusual things, shows what can be done even at this stage.

Talkin' bout a revolution

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Last week, two events in London showed how far apart the views can be on what, to some, is the beginning of the future of chemical engineering and what to others is simply the beginning of the end.

At the IET's BioSysBio conference, which kicked off last Sunday, Professor Richard Kitney of Imperial College, London, argued that synthetic biology is the engine of a third industrial revolution. He pointed to the discoveries of the mid-19th Century and how they drove the rise of the synthetic chemical industry.

The problem that conventional synthetic chemistry has is that it is a brute-force process. It excels at producing simple molecules in high volume. But complex chemicals, particularly those needed for drugs, are expensive to manufacture. And it is no good for producing fuels because you have to put more energy in than you will ever get out.

Cells are chemical factories in miniature that are very good at producing complex chemical structures. Unfortunately, nature has not seen fit to evolve a petrol-producing bacterium. Synthetic biology opens up a future when gene reprogramming will make it possible to develop a bacterium that can turn sunlight and excess carbon dioxide into petrol or ethanol.

However, it does not take long for the ethical issues to surface. Opponents to this kind of technology worry the world will end up covered in toxic green goo pumped out by bugs gone bad.

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