Synthetic Biology

News: Recently, the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology released a draft foresight paper on synthetic biology. Synthetic biology has multifarious applications of energy, agriculture and biofuels. Thus, there is always a perceived threat of components releasing into the open environment. Therefore, the document stresses on the need for a national policy that can consolidate India’s stand on the issue.

What is Synthetic Biology?

  • The term ‘synthetic biology’ was first used by Barbara Hobomin in 1980, to describe bacteria that had been genetically engineered using recombinant DNA technology.
  • Synthetic biology refers to the science of using genetic sequencing, editing, and modification to create unnatural organisms or organic molecules that can function in living systems.
  • Synthetic biology enables scientists to design and synthesise new sequences of DNA from scratch.
  • The term was used to describe the synthesis of unnatural organic molecules that function in living systems.
  • More broadly in this sense, the term has been used with reference to efforts to ‘redesign life’.

Applications:

  • Standardised Biological Parts– identify and categorise standardised genomic parts that can be used (and synthesised quickly) to build new biological systems.
  • Applied Protein Design– redesign existing biological parts and expand the set of natural protein functions for new processes. For e.g, Modified rice to produce beta-carotene (a nutrient usually associated with carrots), that prevents Vitamin A deficiency.
  • Natural Product Synthesis-engineer microbes to produce all of the necessary enzymes and biological functions to perform complex multistep production of natural products. For e.g, Microorganisms harnessed for bioremediation (use of living microorganisms to degrade environmental contaminants into less toxic forms) to clean pollutants from water, soil and air.
  • Synthetic Genomics– design and construct a ‘simple’ genome for a natural bacterium. For e.g, Yeast engineered to produce rose oil as an eco-friendly and sustainable substitute for real roses that perfumers use to make luxury scents.

Issues:

  • The intentional or accidental release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment could have significant negative impacts on both human and environmental health. Misuse of these technologies and a failure to account for unintended consequences could cause irreversible environmental damage.
  • It’s a movement of “citizen scientists” interested in synthetic biology experiments that has become an international phenomenon over the last decade. Often with little prior knowledge of the field, enthusiasts meet in makeshift labs to take crash courses in biotechnology and conduct hands-on experiments.
  • Many of the ethical questions relevant to synthetic biology are similar to ethical discussions related to genome editing like:
    • Are humans crossing moral boundaries by redesigning organisms with synthetic biology techniques?
    • If synthetic biology yields new treatments and cures for diseases, who in our society will have access to them?