Here is one of Discover’s top 6 genetics stories of 2006. Not only are these people doing intelligent design research — they are engineers!
6 Biologists Crack Open Life’s Tool Kit
Intelligent design became a scientific reality this year with the report that researchers had custom-made a lifesaving microbeÃ¢â‚¬â€one that helps make a much-needed drug against malaria. The feat is one of the first concrete applications of synthetic biology, an emerging field in which scientists reshuffle the components of cellular life in order to produce precisely tailored results.
Cobbling together the genes of three different species, chemical engineer Jay Keasling of the University of California at Berkeley transformed a metabolic pathway in yeast that allows the engineered microbe to produce a precursor to artemisinin, a compound used to treat malaria. Artemisinin is normally derived from leaves of the sweet wormwood plant, but it is difficult and expensive to extract in large quantities. A cheaper means of producing it could save many lives, as at least 1 million people die of malaria every year. “We made it over the most significant hurdle in our efforts to produce this drug,” says Keasling. The remaining steps needed to manufacture it, he says, can be achieved using standard, inexpensive synthetic chemistry.
In August the National Science Foundation affirmed the promise of synthetic biology with a $16 million grant to establish the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a collaboration among such institutions as Harvard University, MIT, the University of California at San Francisco, and the University of California at Berkeley. Projects of interest include creating drugs that fight HIV, bacteria that seek and invade tumor cells, and biological sources of renewable energy. In a separate project, Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, is attempting to synthesize a bacterium with the minimum genome needed to live.
Some researchers in the scientific community have expressed alarm, however, at the rapid progress in a field that could lead to a simple method for producing artificial pathogens, drug-resistant microorganisms, or new types of bioweapons. Not only has SynBERC set up an open-source system for sharing DNA sequences and the basic components of synthetic biology, but stretches of synthetic DNA can now be ordered over the Internet at relatively low cost. This has already allowed scientists to assemble the poliovirus from scratch and to resurrect the deadly 1918 flu virus. “DNA synthesis lets you go from genetic information, which is widely available, to genetic material,” explains Drew Endy, an assistant professor of biological engineering at MIT. In May scientists met to discuss the potential misuse of advanced biological engineering techniques. They produced a draft of broad guidelines for the industryÃ¢â‚¬â€including the oversight of synthetic DNA salesÃ¢â‚¬â€but no formal regulations are currently in place.