In July 2017, I attended a secret meeting coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Academy of Science, Technology and Medicine. In the room are research scientists, government officials, and PhDs in the hard sciences. Our mission that day was to talk about the future of Crispr-Cas9. This powerful gene editing tool was not known to the general public back then, but today you can know it as a “molecular scissors” using biological processes to cut and paste genetic information.
Crispr may be new, but the main points of our conversation are barely original. We focus on scientists ‘concerns – regulatory uncertainty, access to research funding, intellectual property rights ̵1; and government officials’ concerns. – national security and public backlash against “design kids”. The same conversation happened in 1991 when the first trials of gene therapy began in humans, and again in 1996 with the birth of Dolly, a cloned sheep. A few years later, in 2003, the first human genome sequencing caused similar concerns. Questions are always narrow and short, partly because questioners only fantasize about a future where we cut, copy, and paste existing genetic material. They don’t see a future where anyone can create life from scratch.
Crispr appears in headlines regularly. To the extent that people are even aware that life can be edited, it is a technique that they tend to refer to. But Crispr, while powerful, had a problem: Scientists couldn’t directly see the changes they were making to a molecule. What if I told you that we will soon have not only read and edit access to genetic material, but also write access too? That means, in the not too distant future, we will program living, biological structures as if they were tiny computers.
A new field of science called “synthetic biology” aims to do this by digitizing genetic manipulation. Strings are loaded into software tools – like a word processor, but for DNA code – and eventually printed using something similar to a 3D printer. Instead of editing genetic material inside or outside of DNA, synthetic biology offers scientists the ability to write completely new organisms that never existed. Imagine a synthetic biology app store where you can download and add new capabilities to any cell, microorganism, plant or animal. If that sounds absurd, consider this: Last year, UK researchers synthesized the world’s first living organism—E coli— Contains human-made, not natural-made DNA. Earlier this year, a team of researchers started with a cluster of stem cells from a frog with African claws as a base, then used supercomputers, virtual environments, and evolutionary algorithms to Create 100 prototypes to craft. The result: a small programmable spot of tissue called a xenobot. These live robots can wiggle, swim, and walk. They work cooperatively and can even heal themselves. They are small enough to be injected into a human body, go everywhere and – possibly one day – deliver the targeted drug.
These tiny blobs are an example of the accessibility of life – a relatively new field of science. This generic term refers to a variety of fields of study, tools and systems that aim to redesign, redesign, and optimize the living world. And the kinds of conversations we have today about artificial intelligence – misplaced fear and optimism, irrational excitement about market potential, intentional ignorance statements of Our elected officials – will reflect the conversations we are about to have about synthetic biology.
Amount Attention and resources for synthetic biology have only only increased in the face of a pandemic, making it more likely that this research will affect our health in the near future. This field is receiving increased investment because of the new coronavirus; as a result, it has accelerated breakthroughs in vaccine mRNA, home diagnostic tests and large library of new antiviral drugs. For example, a synthetic biology startup called Berkeley Lights, recently built hardware to collect blood samples from a patient who had recovered from Covid-19. It separates bad cells from useful ones and allows scientists to incubate them to see if they produce antibodies that neutralize the coronavirus. If the process worked, the researchers would be able to sequence the immune cells, send the code to a synthetic DNA company to print the physical DNA, then inject the new DNA into the correct cells, program the cells. cells that produce the most antibodies. needs of the patient.