Synthetic Biology

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Adam's Weekly Blog

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology

For almost the entire history of the planet, Nature has been life’s...
For almost the entire history of the planet, Nature has been life’s sole master architect. But now, synthetic biology is allowing scientists to copy, digitise, and then manipulate life to create new organisms.

To get a grip of what this means think of the science as writing code into the "operating software" of life.

The term ‘synthetic biology’ dates back surprisingly far – to 1912 – but it is now taking us to places that many had not imagined. That’s not just because the science is getting so much more advanced but because those advances are pushing down the cost and making things possible that were once beyond reach.

For instance in 2001, it took $95m to sequence a genome, the genetic code of a whole organism. By 2015 the price had dropped to around a $1,000.

I went to Stanford University to meet Associate Professor of Bioengineering Christina Smolke. As I sat in her office eating my sandwich and dropping bits of lettuce over her desk she explained what they are up to.

Her team is busy making synthetic opioids, substances similar to opiates which are used to relieve pain that are made from poppies,

And, like so many biology stories we feature, it all starts with what I increasingly think of as the magical substance called yeast.

By altering their genetic material, yeasts created by Smolke’s team, are able to produce opioids called Hydrocodone and Thebaine.

Traditionally, it can take more than a year to produce a batch of opioid medicines. The Stanford team’s work means these drugs can potentially be made much faster and more cheaply.

The motivation behind all this is to create safer medications -- pills that can dull the pain and are less addictive and without the negative side effects that opioids have such as slowing down breathing.

Smolke and her team have been working on this for a decade. It has involved inserting 23 different genes into ordinary baker’s yeast, ranging from those found in three different poppy strains through to one found in the common rat.

The synthesised painkiller has the potential to replace those derived from poppies, reducing costs for healthcare providers worldwide and speeding up the production process of new drugs. Furthermore, the yeast represents a renewable source for these drugs.

It’s an amazing approach not just for the creation of drugs but, as you will see in the programme, for the wide variety of new things made possible by this increasingly powerful arm of science.

In our programme we talk to one scientist who shows me how the digital code of a synthetic cell could be emailed via the Internet. Using this technology you could email a flu vaccine or a protein.

In the future even our homes could have some sort of machine, a printer perhaps, that creates a vaccine we need. Scientists are talking about sending life at the speed of light.

That truly is extraordinary.
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