Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The future impact of genome synthesis

The synthesis blog pointed to a detailed report discussing the economical importance of impending advances in biological engineering. The study, supported by DOE, DuPont Corporation and The Berkley Nanosciences Nanoengineering Institute tries to cover the main driving forces for biotechnology innovation, it's possible future applications and economical impact. The last chapter is dedicated to envisioning future scenarios for synthetic biology based on different assumptions about important factors that could determine the progress of this technology.

While the scenarios described in the end of the report might be useful to track the speed and mode of evolution of this emerging technology, the most relevant section for life scientists is arguably the one discussing possible applications of genome synthesis.
There are three main applications listed:
Chemicals: Engineering new production pathways and creating new products
Energy: Opening new biological routes for energy transformation
Synthetic Vaccines: Opportunities for rapid-response biosecurity

The best examples of synthetic biology research have consisted up to now mostly of simple toy examples. Usually simple circuits are created and studied to detail but few have obvious immediate practical applications. Are we currently at the inflection point, were synthetic biology research will produce more practical applications or is the complexity of living systems still too large a barrier ?

One example of the use of synthetic biology in chemical production is the work of Dae-Kyun Ro and colleagues in the Keasling lab (free PDF). They re-engineered S. cerevisiae to produce artemisinic acid, a precursor of the malaria drug Artemisinin.

Keasling is also one of the researchers involved in the Helios project. An effort directed at developing technology for solar fuel generation (in the form of biofuel). The project is also headed by Nobel prize laureate Steve Chu that explains the project in this video presentation.