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Potential Thrills and Perils of Synthetic Biology
Gi Na Lee
Korean Minjok Leadership Academy, Republic of Korea

Synthetic biology Synthetic biology is probably one of the hottest research topics for the past several years [1, 2]. Although there was a similar discipline called metabolic engineering, synthetic biology immediately attracted much attention upon introduction due to its emphasis on “designing biology”. Synthetic biology allows the designing and construction of new biological parts, modules, devices, chassis, and systems that we cannot find in nature [1]. Also, it allows us to reengineer and improve those that nature provided. A great example of successful drug development by synthetic biology is the development of a microorganism that is capable of producing the anti-malaria drug artemisinin [3]. Last April, the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, officially launched a production facility in Italy to produce artemisinin on a large-scale. It is expected to produce 35 tonnes of artemisinin this year, and 50 ~ 60 tonnes next year. The amount is enough to treat one-third of the world's malaria patients. This indeed shows the power of synthetic biology to improve the state of human healthcare.

Another great example of the successful application of synthetic biology is the bio-based, sustainable production of an important industrial chemical: 1,4-butanediol [4]. The US-based, biotech venture company, Genomatica, has successfully engineered a bacterium (Escherichia coli) to produce 1,4-butanediol, a precursor for solvents, electronic chemicals, and polymers including polyesters and spandex. They introduced a new metabolic pathway leading to the production of 1,4-butanediol by expressing several heterologous enzymes in E. coli. The engineered E. coli strain was capable of the bio-based production of 1,4-butanediol from a renewable biomass [4]. So far, 1,4-butanediol has been produced through petrochemical refinery processes. The world's largest producer, BASF, already has a production capacity exceeding 500,000 tonnes per year. However, BASF announced last May that it will begin bio-based production of 1,4-butanediol using the biotechnology developed by Genomatica. This is a major breakthrough in biorefineries, as traditional chemical companies that have relied on petrochemical refineries are moving into the bio-based production of such chemicals from renewable resources.

Many more successful examples of the enhanced production of drugs, chemicals, fuels, and materials by employing synthetic biology are expected to appear [5]. The additional tools that can be provided by synthetic biology through the synthesis of new enzymes, regulatory proteins, metabolic pathways, and regulatory circuits will be essential to develop such cell factories for the efficient production of various products of interest.

Potential threats of synthetic biology

In 2010, a research team at the J. Craig Venter Institute reported the creation of the first artificial bacterium that can survive and reproduce itself relying on an artificial DNA sequence they created [6]. People were
thrilled by this news of the first artificial cell; it proposed new possibilities for creating more sophisticated artificial organisms that can be employed for the benefit of mankind and the environment. A significant reduction in the cost of DNA synthesis, together with the advances in our understanding on genotype-phenotype relationships at the whole cell level are making it more and more realistic. At the same time, people are worried about the misuse of synthetic biology in the form of the creation of harmful organisms that might get out of our control. What if a synthetic virus, combining the characteristics of the rapidly spreading influenza virus and the highly lethal ebola virus, is created? What if a pathogenic bacterium that is resistant to all existing antibiotics is created? What will happen if an artificial organism, originally designed to perform good functions, is doing something hazardous beyond our imagination and cannot be controlled? These are some of the potential threats of synthetic biology.

More thrills than perils

It is thus essential to take all measures to ensure that synthetic biology is used for the benefit of humans and the environment. For these genetically created organisms, issues regarding ethics, safety, and security are becoming ever more important. Also, thorough discussion should be done on the definition of “artificial organism”. Metabolic engineers have been engineering various organisms by deleting, adding, and modifying genes or regulatory DNAs. These modified organisms are definitely not the ones that can be found in nature; Should we then, call them artificial organisms? This matter is rather complicated and requires more debate.

Should we ban synthetic biology because of its potential threats? As described above, in terms of the production of chemicals, fuels, materials, and drugs, synthetic biology can provide us with many benefits that cannot be solely provided by the nature. This reminds us of the debate on the thrills and perils of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear powerplants- particularly the latter after the recent accident in Japan. Due to the bad experience we have had with GMOs for a long time, it might be beneficial to avoid the widespread use of the term “synthetic biology” for products that are in direct contact with the public. Instead, we can use the terms “metabolic engineering” or “improved biosystems”. Synthetic biology will be better used in education to promote a better understanding of biology. We should do our best to show the positive aspects of synthetic biology as a solution associated with the booming population's increasing demand for resources. On the other hand, proper education with respect to ethics and safety, as well as governmental control of potential threats, need to be done.

Synthetic biology will be an increasingly important discipline in allowing us to better understand the biological system and to optimally design and construct cell factories for the welfare of humans and the environment. We should not stir up any unnecessary debate due to its potential perils by exposing all kinds of possible outcomes to takeholders. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers should abide by ethics, with safety and security in mind. After all, there are much more thrills than perils in the future of synthetic biology. 


The author would like to thank her teachers, Junseok Lee, Manwi Han, and Jonguk Na, for their guidance, and Professor James Collins, Professor Christopher Voigt, and Professor Gregory Stephanopoulos for hosting her visit to their laboratories to learn about synthetic biology.

About the Author

Ms. Gi Na Lee is currently second year (11th grade equivalent) student at the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy, Hoengseong-gun, Gangwon-do, Republic of Korea. She has recently received several awards including Minister's Award at the Sound of Nature Competition, 2012 Wiley UNEP World Environment Day Essay Competition Winner, Silver Prize of Dasan Academic Research Competition, and Honorable Mention at the 2013 Engineer Girl Essay Competition by National Academy of Engineering USA. She has also published two papers in scientific journals including ACS Synthetic Biology and Microbial Cell Factories.  As extracurricular activities, she won the 2012 National Cheerleading Competition and has been serving as the Vice-President of Student Council on Judicial Branch in 2013.


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