Is synthetic biology the key to health?

Engineered microbes will only be successful in the real world if we pay attention to safety, says expert

In January, the UK government announced a funding injection of £40 million to boost synthetic biology research, adding three new Synthetic Biology Research Centres (SBRCs) in Manchester, Edinburgh and Warwick. The additional funding takes the UK’s total public spending on synthetic biology to £200 million – an investment that hints at the commercial potential of synthetic biology.

In fact, according to the authors of a new review published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize science and medicine. But before the technology is ready for real-world applications like targeted cancer treatments, toxicity sensors and living factories, more attention needs to be paid to its safety and stability, they say. One of the safety concerns associated with engineering microbes is the potential transfer of genes to wild organisms, the result of which could be unpredictable. One of the safety concerns associated with engineering microbes is the potential transfer of genes to wild organisms, the result of which could be unpredictable.

Pamela Silver, PhDSynthetic biology has now reached a stage where it’s ready to move out of the lab and into the real world, to be used in patients and in the field. According to Dr. Pamela Silver, Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the paper, this move means researchers should increase focus on the safety of engineered microbes in biological systems like the human body.

“Historically, molecular biologists engineered microbes as industrial organisms to produce different molecules,” said Dr. Silver. “The more we discovered about microbes, the easier it was to program them. We’ve now reached a very exciting phase in synthetic biology where we’re ready to apply what we’ve developed in the real world, and this is where safety is vital.”

Engineering microbes for medicine and technology

The genetic code of most bacteria is packaged in plasmids – tiny circular structures that contain DNA. As simple organisms, bacteria don’t have many genes, so scientists can sequence and manipulate them relatively easily, making it possible to create engineered microbes.

Synthetic biology involves programming microbes to behave in certain ways. For example, bacteria can be engineered to glow when they detect certain molecules, and can be turned into tiny factories to produce chemicals.

Microbes have an impact on health; the way they interact with animals is being ever more revealed by microbiome research – studies on all the microbes that live in the body – and this is making them easier and faster to engineer. Scientists are now able to synthesize whole genomes, making it technically possible to build a microbe from scratch.

“Ultimately, this is the future – this will be the way we program microbes and other cell types,” said Dr. Silver. “Microbes have small genomes, so they’re not too complex to build from scratch. That gives us huge opportunities to design them to do specific jobs, and we can also program in safety mechanisms.”

Better safe than sorry

One of the big safety issues associated with engineering microbial genomes is the transfer of their genes to wild microbes. Microbes are able to transfer segments of their DNA during reproduction, which leads to genetic evolution. One key challenge associated with synthetic biology is preventing this transfer between the engineered genome and wild microbial genomes.

There are already several levels of safety infrastructure in place to ensure no unethical research is done, and the kinds of organisms that are allowed in laboratories. The focus now, according to Dr. Silver, is on technology to ensure safety. When scientists build synthetic microbes, they can program in mechanisms called kill switches that cause the microbes to self-destruct if their environment changes in certain ways.

Microbial sensors and drug delivery systems can be shown to work in the lab, but researchers are not yet sure how they will function in a human body or a large-scale bioreactor. Engineered organisms have huge potential, but they will only be useful if proven to be reliable, predictable, and cost effective. Today, engineered bacteria are already in clinical trials for cancer, and this is just the beginning, says Dr. Silver.

“The rate at which this field is moving forward is incredible. I don't know what happened – maybe it’s the media coverage, maybe the charisma – but we’re on the verge of something very exciting. Once we’ve figured out how to make genomes more quickly and easily, synthetic biology will change the way we work as researchers, and even the way we treat diseases.”

Synthetic biology in the media

According to Prof. Paul Freemont, Head of the Section of Structural Biology at Imperial College London and co-founder and co-director of the EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, “Having the word 'synthetic' next to the word 'biology' does provoke a reaction in people that can be negative.” But overall, media coverage hasn’t been negative. In the 2008 report Trends in American and European Press Coverage of Synthetic Biology, the Wilson Center analyzed media coverage of synthetic biology between 2003 and 2008. In the 5-year period, press coverage on synthetic biology increased eight-fold in the US and nine-fold in Europe. Stories likened synthetic biology to playing God, Frankenstein and Lego, and speculated that the technology could give us endless biofuel and new life forms.

Read the article

Elsevier has made the following article freely available until January 16, 2015:

Tyler J Ford and Pamela A Silver: “Synthetic biology expands chemical control of microorganisms,” Current Opinion in Chemical Biology (October 2015).

The Current Opinion journals, published by Elsevier, were developed out of the recognition that it is increasingly difficult for specialists to keep up to date with the expanding volume of information published in their subject. In Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, we help the reader by providing in a systematic manner:

1. The views of experts on current advances in chemical biology in a clear and readable form.
2. Evaluations of the most interesting papers, annotated by experts, from the great wealth of original publications. Read more.

Dr. Pamela Silver is the Elliot T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. She is also a full member of the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering. She was one of the first members of the Department of Systems Biology and the first Director of the Harvard University Graduate Program in Systems Biology.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Lucy Goodchild-van
  HiltenAfter a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of   Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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