“Spider-goats” & other wonders

Spiders produce silk and goats make milk. That’s hard to argue with. What if I told you that there is a tool to change it, what if I told you that in Utah, USA, there are goats that produce spider silk?

Photo by Klari Reis
Photo by Klari Reis

The tool which enables this inter-species “fusion” is a fairly new field of science, called synthetic biology. First time the term “synthetic biology” was mentioned in 1970s. You might think it’s something weird and “alien”. However, it’s much closer to you than you think. Let’s begin our journey through the “synthetic” world with insulin. Over 70% of the world’s insulin supply is produced by E.coli bacteria. It used to be extracted from pigs, but it was “messy” and inefficient. Then scientists thought, if only they could put a gene coding for human insulin into something that produces it rapidly and makes it easy to use… Turns out, they could!

The basis of synthetic biology is to manufacture a useful product by using living organisms, very often E.coli bacteria. Scientists insert genes coding for proteins that normally wouldn’t exist within the bacteria. E.coli can only make proteins, which include enzymes, transport proteins (eg. haemoglobin – a molecule that binds oxygen in the red blood cells and carries it around your body) or hormones (eg. insulin). It doesn’t stop there! There are many more applications for synthetic biology and there are new ones emerging all the time. Bacteria can be modified to detect pollution and indicate it by changing colour! In addition to that, bacteria has been producing artemisin (a malaria drug) and even diesel! Many edible plants can be modified too: some of them could provide extra vitamins, as well as, provide vaccines. Wouldn’t be it be great, to get vaccinated by munching on a sugar cane?

If you said that this whole synthetic biology business feels like a rocket science, you wouldn’t be far off. Scientists at NASA have developed a bacteria-containing biocapsule, which helps astronauts deal with radiation. A capsule, made of nanotubes, is implanted under the astronaut’s skin and if any radiation is detected, the bacteria in the capsule start automatically clearing it.

We keep talking how scientists did “this” and “that”. Is synthetic biology out of reach for the rest of us?

lego460Remember how fun it was to build Lego? Now just imagine if that Lego “came to life”, imagine playing with “BioBricks” instead. BioBricks foundation is a public benefit organisation that works in an open and ethical way to provide biological parts. No, they don’t provide arms or legs, they offer something much more special – building blocks for genetic machinery. By ordering different parts of genes (eg. promoters, enhancers etc) you can build a biological circuit that will produce proteins.

It goes a step further. Have you heard of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Biology? It is a movement that aims to make science more accessible to people, who may not have scientific education background. London has an excellent space for those who want to get their hands “dirty” with science – it’s called London BioHackspace. The DIY community involves professional biologists, as well as, amateurs, who all together organise experiments, events, where they talk openly about science and try various molecular and synthetic biology activities.

That’s where ethical issues might come to your mind. Do we have the right to tamper with any organism’s genetic material? Who should be allowed to execute the experiments? Is it dangerous to let anyone participate? What about dual use of research – maybe somebody will use an innocent DIY lab to create a bioweapon? That is all for you to think of. Just keep your mind open.

I can’t really wrap my head around the word “synthetic” in this context. Is biology ever synthetic? I want to think of it as more of a “mix and match” situation. We are all live beings – let it be a spider, a goat, a bacterium or a human. We are all made of cells, we all have some kind of genetic material that determines what we look like and what we are capable of.

Synthetic biology has turned the world (or more accurately, organisms) upside down and inside out. The fascinating thing is that nobody really knows how far it can go until it gets there.

The article has been published in the monthly newsletter of the Faculty of Life Sciences and Computing in London Metropolitan University.