The strange new craft of making life from scratch


David Shukman explains how synthetic biology works

Enter a set of labs at Imperial College in London and at first sight there is nothing exceptional: pale grey work surfaces, collections of bottles, racks of test-tubes.

But amid the bustle of white coats and the bright flames of Bunsen burners, a very modern version of alchemy is under way - the design and creation of forms of life that have never existed in nature.

This is the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, a hothouse for an endeavour unprecedented in human history and billed by its promoters as offering the next industrial revolution.

Start Quote

If the 19th Century was all about the revolution of harnessing energy from fossil fuels, and the 20th Century was about exploiting the power of data, this century will be about controlling biology”

End Quote

A report for the Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that this new science was of "critical importance to building the nation's wealth".

Imagine bacteria, fitted with artificial DNA, harnessed to churn out an anti-malaria vaccine - that is happening already in California.

Or imagine bacteria with synthetic genes that make them light up when parasites are detected in drinking water - that has been proven to work at Imperial.

Or imagine organisms transformed into factories to make us fuel or materials, or engineered to gobble up oil spills and industrial pollution, or crafted to provide the power and wiring for the next generation of computers.

Some of this happening now, but much more may also be possible in the future.

New life forms

When I asked one leading scientist where this could lead, he replied impatiently: "That's like wondering what a computer could do back in the 1960s - who can tell?"

But the concept of synthetic biology does take some getting used to - not just the very idea of creating new life-forms and the scale of the economic potential but also of course the implications, which are profound and, to some, very worrying.

The BBC's David Shukman reports on "synthetic biology"

Ultimately, this is about taking control of nature, redesigning it and rebuilding it to perform some task.

No wonder the phrase "playing God" comes up in almost every conversation. With it comes a grand historical vision.

If the 19th Century was all about the revolution of harnessing energy from fossil fuels, and the 20th Century was about exploiting the power of data, this century will be about controlling biology.

So how does one understand this brave new world?

The starting point is GM or genetic modification, the technology, with us for several decades, in which the genes of one organism are inserted into another.

Over recent years, GM has led to crops that are resistant to weed killers or insecticides.

Most recently, researchers have been shuffling genes to give ordinary oranges the health benefits of blood oranges or white rice the same nutritional value as whole rice.

Most startling are the goats that carry the spider gene that produces silk, as featured by Adam Rutherford in his recent Horizon.

Hostile response

In Europe, this kind of work has often been regarded with suspicion, even hostility.

Trial crops have been attacked and the major supermarket chains in Britain, fearful of public nervousness, do not stock GM food.

Start Quote

What makes this possible is a rather sobering fact: that DNA, the twisting strands that hold the genes of every living thing on Earth, essentially comes down to four basic molecules.”

End Quote

But what is coming next with synthetic biology takes this research into an entirely different league, and only now is it entering the public consciousness.

The basic principle is that nature is treated like engineering. It is just a set of building blocks, and genes are mere components.

And just as with building a car or a plane, the different parts can be designed and assembled any way you want.

So instead of taking the genes of one organism and adding them to another, scientists dream up new genes, select their characteristics, get them made up artificially and then put them to use.

What makes this possible is a rather sobering fact: that DNA, the twisting strands that hold the genes of every living thing on Earth, essentially comes down to four basic molecules.

These are adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, better known by their first letters A, C, G and T.

And because these molecules are well understood, they can be manufactured synthetically.

Here is how it works. A scientist wants to get an organism to do a particular function.

They sit down at their computer and manipulate the patterns of the four molecules to design the genes that will make that function happen.

They then send off an order to a specialist "gene synthesiser"- yes, such companies now exist. Imperial College uses a firm in Germany.

They make up the new genes and send them back in the post - a tiny vial containing an artificially-made code for life.

Surge of new thinking

The synthetic genes are then inserted into a bacterium which has had its own original DNA stripped out.

The organism will do exactly what the scientist intended: a living thing, but under the control of Man.

That makes it sound too easy. This science is in its earliest days. But it is fostering a surge of new thinking and new approaches.

Start Quote

I wonder if the dawn of the nuclear age had the same kind of feel, with science taking us to the brink of an unparalleled new power”

End Quote

The largest of the synthetic biology labs in Britain is at Imperial College.

The likeliest of its products will be sensors, half-electronic half-biological devices that harness engineered bacteria to light up when parasites or infections are detected.

Others are pursuing different paths. Jim Haseloff at Cambridge University is thinking about taking control of cells to get them to build new tissue and materials.

Ali Tavassoli at Southampton University is working towards a wristwatch device in which synthetically-equipped bacteria detect blood sugar levels and then release insulin.

Jason Chin at Cambridge's famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology has inserted an artificial amino acid into nematode worms, as reported by my colleague Roland Pease.

A faint glow from the tiny creatures indicates that their synthetic ingredient is happily incorporated. The talk is of "accelerating evolution".

Concern over risks

So where does this lead?

Laboratory Imperial scientists are at the cutting edge

The UK government has commissioned a group of industrialists and academics to draw up a road map to explore the industrial potential.

America is spending billions in this area and China is thought to be investing heavily as well, though less transparently.

Meanwhile environmental groups have raised serious concerns about the risks.

One ethics specialist describes synthetic biology as "exciting, but terrifying".

I wonder if the dawn of the nuclear age had the same kind of feel, with science taking us to the brink of an unparalleled new power.

I'll be exploring the implications in a post tomorrow.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

Should we try to halt extinction?

In an age when mankind can send robots to look for life on Mars, why can't science stop so many forms of life from being wiped out here on Earth?

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    This "new" discipline smacks of a rather empty re-branding of existing techniques. Painstaking and meticulous research got us where we are now. The advent of DNA techniques in the 70s saw the same exciting prospects now being touted for synthetic biology. This is isn't a new science it appears to be meretricious bucket chemistry standing on the shoulders of disciplined research.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Having just read Sky released ITV codes via pirates so it would go bust, I wonder what companies would do with this? Spread a designer virus to a rival's headquarters just before a product launch? Could google give you something to make you more susceptible to adverts? Sniffer bacteria that track your movements and report it?
    There is already insufficient law to protect the public from companies

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    There is a scientific error in this article. Researchers in California are not churning out a vaccine for malaria - it's a valuable therapeutic drug for treating malaria. The two are quite different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    With respect David, "genes by post" is not new; most of us in the industry have been using it for years. You seem to be suggesting that Imperial are "creating life". This is not true and currently impossible.
    I really do worry about the standard of scientific reporting from the BBC. Horizon is a pale shadow of its former self, QED is gone and all we have left is the dreadful Big Bang Theory!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The ethical frameworks and regulation behind this area have not been fully debated or tested. There has been no significant public engagement that I am aware of. I'm not against, per se, but very worried about the questions it poses and who is allowed to answer them. I await the Nuffield Council's report on Synthetic Biology this Autumn with interest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Don't expect international agreements and regulations to manage this technology. Don't expect to know what will be created. Don't expect that anyone will know how such de novo biological organisms would interact with the Earth ecosystems. This is a new world. This is so cool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    has anyone read "Blood Music" by Greg Bear? Maybe this is just the next step in evolution?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    They probably require some assistants. Successful candidates will answer to the name "Igor".

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Four legged chickens? Consider someone requesting a synthetic gene by post with out revealing the real nature of the gene and using the resulting microbe for terrorist purposes. Eg; bacteria cannot metabolise lactose, milk sugar. Were someone to create a bacterium that could metabolise lactose, and release it into the environment, it might cause very serious problems for all mammals indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The image that flashed into my mind was a child tampering with a car engine management system and saying. Yer that should work much better now dad.

    When we can create from scratch a complete elephant out of a test tube, I will be convinced we know enough to tamper. Being responsible enough is another question

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Finally!! Now where did I put those Sea Monkeys

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Synthetic biology doesn't have to be mysterious or menacing. It can have the most mundane yet wonderful applications one can imagine. Take drumsticks, for instance. Currently, each chicken can only yield 2 drumsticks, but a properly-engineered one could provide a dozen! Even better, a drumstick tree could be developed, thereby eliminating the need to slaughter chickens completely! Yummy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I am trying to imagine the possibilities but, unfortunately, my imagination stops at the four legged chicken.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    @thefrogstar Way to draw a false analogy between this which is real and has science behind it and climate change denial which is non-scientific, has no science behind it and is politically motivated. Why don't you go do some real research on the observed changes due to climate change (melting ice, shifting animal ranges, ocean acidification) on good sites like Nature? But you're just anti-science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I just don't trust this sort of thing, money is involved, so risks will be taken. now all we need is for something to go wrong. No I'm not a prophet of doom, just a pragmatist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The potential is unimaginable and should definitely be pursued, but really needs very tight international regulation.

    God knows what kind of monsters might be created in secret, or if the technology gets into the wrong hands. And by monsters I'm mostly referring to bacteria and other micro-organisms that we are not immune to.

    @thefrogstar: These things ARE happening, slowly. Fact, look it up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Exciting? Yes. But not exactly new. Environmental pressure groups have been lobbying against biotech for decades now. Many other nations are just getting on with it.

    Like global-warming, the prophesies of cataclysmic doom and misery repeatedly fail to materialise.


Page 7 of 7



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.