Synthetic biology is the design and construction of biological devices and systems for useful purposes (figure from The Official Andreas CV Blog).
Four years ago, Time Magazine columnist Nancy Gibbs argued (The risks and rewards of synthetic biology, 28 Jun 2010) the need for early, inclusive and expansive public debate on advances at the frontiers of biomedicine, bioenergy, agrobiotechnology and other fast-advancing fields built on the breakthroughs of the gene revolution.
She refers specifically to a new, fast-evolving discipline called ‘synthetic biology’, which scientists use to design and build (‘synthesize’) novel biological entities (enzymes, genetic circuits, cells), functions and systems. Synthetic biology is the current poster child on which the public is pinning its hopes and fears for ‘new science’.
Gibbs was reflecting on the recent new milestone reached by biopioneer Craig Venter and his team in Maryland, USA, who replaced the genetic material of a cell (the genome) with synthetic (made-in-the-lab) genetic material and then demonstrated that instructions from the lab-made genome were able to cause the cell to reproduce successfully. Venter and others have described this as the first instance of creating ‘life’ in the lab.
It is, of course, critically important that the public absorbs the news of these scientific breakthroughs, discusses their possible significance, and that relevant civil and expert bodies provide oversight of such potentially revolutionary advances.
But at the same time as this breakthrough made dramatic (‘Man Creates Life’) headlines, other less exciting but potentially crucial uses of synthetic biology are being made in labs around the world.
A month ago, another breakthrough in synthetic biology was reported.
‘Scientists have made a breakthrough in the field of synthetic biology after they synthesized the first entire chromosome for yeast. It is undoubtedly a giant leap towards the creation of artificial life. The importance of the latest feat could be understood by the fact that the ability to design and synthesize chromosomes for artificial life can have a huge influence on the world’s economy and development of innovative cures in medicine.
‘The synthesis of an artificial chromosome is seen as an important immediate step between creating an artificial gene and an artificial genome. Thousands of genes could be present on a single chromosome, but it takes multiple chromosomes to make up a genome in non-bacteria life-forms. . . .
‘Of the  chromosomes found in yeast, SynIII is only one, but it is certainly the first one that has been completely synthesized. Researchers are highly optimistic that they will be able to replicate their achievement with the remaining 15.’
Read the whole article in the Austrian Tribune: Breakthrough in field of synthetic biology, scientists near to creating artificial life, 29 Mar 2014.
At the Nairobi laboratories of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), animal health researchers have begun using components of synthetic biology technologies in development of vaccines against the African cattle killer East Coast fever, caused by infection with the tick-borne protozoan parasite Theileria parva, and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP), an easily spread respiratory disease of cattle that can kill up to 80% of infected animals and is caused by mycoplasma bacteria.
It’s early days yet for these research projects, but should use of the techniques of this new field eventually help stop the ravages of East Coast fever and/or CBPP, we will have much cause to celebrate, with many farmers in Africa and other developing regions saved from devastating losses of their livestock.
Vish Nene, leader of ILRI’s Vaccine Development Program, explains.
We are not (as yet) using synthetic biology to manipulate the genome of Theileria parva, the parasite that causes East Coast fever. It would be great to be able to do as we don’t have a method to alter the genetics of this parasite. However, we are using some of the building blocks of this technology. For example, we use synthetic parasite genes where the codon usage of the genes has been altered to enhance gene expression levels in heterologous cells.
While the East Coast fever group is not engaged in synthetic biology at a whole genome scale, the ILVAC mycoplasma research group is. Elise Schieck, Joerg Jores and their team collaborate with Sanjay Vashee at the J Craig Venter Institute (USA) and Carole Lartigue and Alain Blanchard at the French public research institute, Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA), to use genome transplantation techniques and yeast genetics to manipulate mycoplasma genomes. Synthetic mycoplasma genes are also being exploited.
As far as we are aware, the genome transplantation methods we are using are a first in Africa.