The very phrase "synthetic life" or "synthetic biology" is quite intriguing in and of itself. I have always found the idea of man-made life fascinating. Creating specific DNA from scratch is the ultimate goal of genetic engineering. "synthetic biology refers to the design and creation of components of biological systems not found in the natural world as well as the redesign and fabrication of existing biological systems.” This quote was taken from the National Cancer Institution synthetic biology workshop in an article from www.genengnews.com. To be more encompassing, I will define synthetic biology as the search to be able to design and build biological systems to process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials or structures, provide energy, create food, and to maintain and enhance general health and the environment.
Researchers sometimes create DNA from scratch
One of the major uses of synthetic biology is to help us understand natural biology. We make observations and then create theories of how things might work, but how can you test if a certain gene really does what you think it does? Synthetic biology offers an answer, you recreate that gene using what you know, and see if the behavior of the creature that you put it in, usually a bacteria, matches what your theory expects. Measuring the differences between theory and experiment also goes along way to making new and more accurate theories. Of course, synthetic biology isn't only used for experimentation. As I mentioned before, synthetic biology will ideally be able to provide anything from information processing to cleaning up and bettering our environment. One of the major forces driving this research is the quest for a cure for cancer. In theory, an engineered cancer killing bacteria would be able to identify and then live within cancer cells. There, they would complete a wide range of goals in order to kill the cancer, from competing for resources to releasing toxins. Then, after the cancer had been killed off, the bacteria would die off as well, so as not to harm the patient. Engineered bacteria like this are already being tested in mice, but these are just preliminary tests, a cure is still a long way off.
T-cell attacking a cancer cell
Synthetic biology might also help us to create cheaper and cleaner fuels. We could create bacteria that consume waste and produce a substance that could be used as fuel. Or we could further alter plants to make better ethanol producers. Any number of things can be done with this technology.
Joule Biotechnologies wants to use bacteria and CO2 from the atmosphere to create fuel.
Synthetic biology could even help us to stop, and even reverse, global warming. We could use synthetic organisms to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and turn it into fuel or even solids that we could use to pave our roads.
Sequestered carbon probably won't look like this carbon brick, but you get the idea.
Of course, with any technology like this, there will always be critics. One of the major critics has been ETC Group, they have repeatedly called for more regulation on synthetic biology and even for it to be stopped all together. The critics concerns are largely centered around safety and ethics. There is the fear that this technology could fall into the hands of someone with malicious intent. Being able to manipulate and create life to ones will is a very powerful thing, and so critics argue that terrorists or aggressive nations could use this to create horrible pathogens that would take out large population areas and would be resistant to all forms of medication. There is also the fear of the lack of biodiversity. Genetic diversity offers a strong benefit because it means that a disease won't be able to wipe out every member of a specific species, some members of that species would be naturally immune or resistant. We already have this problem when it comes to agriculture. Many plants are just clones, so if a disease wipes out one plant, it wipes out all the others, and thus a crop is lost. With synthetic biology, the fear is that genetic diversity would decrease even more, and that pathogens could wipe out large portions of our food supply.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the ethical concerns. Every time humans alter nature, there is always the fear that we are trying to "play god". Many people believe that we should live with what we've been given and stop messing with the natural way of things.
Some of these concerns are valid, if a little far fetched, but they cannot be allowed to stop us from continuing this field of research. With every new technology there is always the possibility that it will be used to do harm, it is unavoidable, but progress is just too important to be halted by fear. Synthetic biology could cure cancer and stop global warming, it is too important of a field to be allowed to stop. While I agree that the critics have a point, I don't think that we should necessarily go along with what they propose. Though a little regulation might go a long way.
Professor Rabinow at UC Berkeley is a critic of synthetic biology research.
If technology proceeds as it has thus far, it isn't hard to imagine a world where cancer has been eliminated and pollutants are being turned back into usable fuel thanks to synthetic biology. Man has come a long way in their scientific quest, and synthetic life is the next step. I say hats off to those researchers working to improve our lives.