Welcome to the world of synthetic biology, where micro-organisms can be programmed to invade and destroy cancer cells
It once seemed that the most profound feats stemming from DNA-based science would spring from our ability to read and detect genes, which we call the science of genomics. But the real opportunities lie in our ability to write DNA, to synthesize new gene sequences and insert them into organisms, resulting in brand-new biological functions. Printing novel DNA might open the way to achievements once only conceivable in science fiction: designer bacteria that can produce new chemicals, such as more efficient fuels, or synthetic versions of our cells that make us resistant to the effects of radiation.
The first such genome was made in 2000 in an experiment where scientists synthesized their own version of the hepatitis C virus so that they could alter it and discover a way to disable the infection. Today it is possible to read gene sequences into computers, where we can alter them and then print a modified gene into living cells. In “Regenesis,” a book exploring the science of synthetic biology, George Church and Ed Regis imagine a world where micro-organisms are capable of producing clean petroleum or detecting arsenic in drinking water, where people sport genetic modifications that render their bodies impervious to the flu, or where a synthetic organism can be programmed to invade and destroy cancer cells.
Mr. Church is currently a professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School. He arrived there after a storied career as one of the early pioneers in the science of identifying and reading genes. With fellow scientist Walter Gilbert, he developed the first consistent process for sequencing strands of DNA and, in 1984, helped launch the historic project to map the entire human genome while he was a research scientist at the then newly formed biotech company Biogen.
By George Church and Ed Regis (Basic Books, 284 pages, $28)
“Regenesis” begins with a historical look at the evolution of genomics, providing a primer on the science that underlies the field. The authors then describe the ways in which different applications of synthetic biology may transform established science and effectively make obsolete current principles in medicine and manufacturing. Along the way, they offer a definitive account of the advances and business ventures that define this new science.
Mr. Church and Mr. Regis, a broadly published science writer, spend a lot of time describing the latest industrial applications of synthetic genomics. For example, researchers are using genetically altered cyanobacteria to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into alkanes, the molecular constituents of diesel fuel. This green science isn’t yet cost effective. When the Navy recently bought 21,000 gallons of algae-derived jet fuel, it cost $424 per gallon. (Currently, the oil-derived fuel costs around $5 per gallon.) But the ability to alter organisms to increase their yield is growing at an exponential tempo. And our ability to manipulate DNA sequences on microprocessors and write the strands into living organisms is taking a similar trajectory. As the tools for doing these things become more powerful, industrial exploitation will become more widespread and effective.
Then there is the multiplex automated genetic engineering machine invented by Mr. Church and three colleagues from Harvard. This tool makes the process of synthesizing new genes much faster. One of the most promising, although controversial, applications is to re-engineer the human genome itself “for the purpose of preventing many diseases from occurring in the first place.” The tool holds great promise. Imagine if we could remove from our genomes the “host machinery” that viruses need to replicate, potentially making us immune to illnesses as ordinary as the flu.
Such developments promise a great deal, but they also make people uncomfortable and prompt calls for limits on what scientists are allowed to do. But recent history suggests that, when new scientific developments have created theoretical risks, scientists themselves have come together to set boundaries on their work until any uncertainties can be better understood and resolved. The self-imposed limits have also made sure that new science wasn’t used in dangerous or untoward ways. When there were concerns about recombinant DNA in the early days of synthetic biology, for example, researchers imposed a moratorium until the risks could be contained. When gene therapy was believed to harbor latent risks, research was largely put on hold until the risks were better understood. Sometimes, the theoretical risks have led to a principle of absolutist precaution that impedes progress. Today the Food and Drug Administration so tightly regulates gene therapy that few new ventures go forward. But, Messrs. Church and Regis argue, the practical promise of a technology will ultimately prevail. “The industrial revolution that the Luddites tried to prevent in 1811 has brought us enormous benefits,” they write.
The more elusive problem isn’t safety but security—”preventing the deliberate misuse of engineered organisms,” as the authors define the concept. DNA synthesizers are small, cheap and easy to procure. The technical means for harnessing these tools is relatively straightforward—within the grasp of scientists of modest training. The instruction sets are also easily found on the Internet. Rogue regimes and lone villains could one day exploit these scientific methods for diabolical aims. Such a security breach could play like the plot of the 1995 hit film “Twelve Monkeys,” where a wicked scientist engineers a virus that nearly drives mankind to extinction. With the advent of what the authors call “garage biology,” Messrs. Church and Regis think, such scenarios are no longer wildly implausible. “In the end, we found no magic bullets for absolutely preventing worst-case scenarios, no fail-safe fail-safes.”
Many point to the Internet as the defining technology of our age. When history is written centuries from now, it is more likely that writing DNA will be the most enduring innovation, so long as we keep it in safe hands.
Dr. Gottlieb is a physician and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute