Synthetic biology is an extension of the spirit of genetic engineering that focuses on the development of biological systems with new, defined characteristics, assembled according to the principles of engineering. Synthetic biology has the potential to be used for a broad range of applications and has solutions in store for major problems of the future, including the sustainable supply of energy and the elimination of environmental damage. As the current debate on the creation of the first synthetic cell in the laboratory shows, synthetic biology also fuels fears that human beings are playing the role of creators and going beyond natural boundaries, with incalculable consequences for the future.
On 21st May 2010, the journal Science published a paper entitled "First self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell" in which researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute (Rockville, Maryland, USA) describe the construction of a purely synthetic genome and its transplantation into a DNA-free bacterial cell. Subsequently, the "first synthetic cell that has ever been made" and the "first self-replicating cell on the planet whose parent is a computer" (J.C. Venter in a press conference held on 20th May 2010) started to synthesize proteins and replication based on the synthetic genome DNA transplanted into the cell. This news immediately hit the headlines worldwide.
Many commentators believe that this spectacular success in the field of synthetic biology is an essential milestone for tackling the key problems related to the future of the human race: for example, artificial organisms that can convert carbon dioxide could be the solution for the world's energy requirements or they could be used to clean up after environmental disasters, such as the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Others believe that scientific progress of this kind brings us a step closer to the apocalypse caused by human hubris and for such people, Craig Venter is Mephistopheles incarnate. "A headline in the German newspaper "DIE ZEIT" of 27th May read: "Humans can now play creators", and the journalist concluded: "From now on anything and everything would seem to be possible."
The euphoria on the one side and the fears on the other mean that important facts need to be clarified. This special report is intended to shed light on synthetic biology, what it is and what can be expected from this rising new field of research.
This new field of research is an extension of conventional genetic engineering in which scientists assemble defined genetic modules into complex biological systems using engineering principles. Synthetic biology does not relate to the modification of individual genes or properties such as in transgenic organisms, but rather to the construction of new genome segments consisting of genes (from small to large quantities) or entire genomes and new organisms (see above) that have not naturally existed in this form before. Synthetic biology uses tried and proven technologies from molecular biology, recombinant genetic engineering, the chemical synthesis of biological constituents and nucleic acid synthesis amongst others. There is no clear separation between traditional genetic engineering and biotechnology and synthetic biology; the differences tend to be of a more quantitative nature. Synthetic biology is not a new revolutionary field, instead it can be best described on the basis of its strategic objectives and the approaches based on the modular design principle used in the engineering sciences. The assembly of synthetic genomes and cells requires a blueprint that is usually produced using computer-based systems biology approaches.
There are two diametrically opposed opinions in the debate relating to the legal and ethical aspects of the progress in synthetic biology. One group holds that no additional safety problems arise with regard to already established techniques and that the existing regulatory tools (Genetic Engineering Law, Medical Device Act, etc.) are totally sufficient and need at most to be amended. The other group believes that humankind is about to cross another threshold towards a future with incalculable consequences for both human beings and the environment.
The supporters of synthetic biology emphasise the broad range of applications of synthetic biology, ranging from the development of more effective and individualised drugs to specific biosensors, from novel biomaterials to the large-scale production of biofuels and the elimination of environmental damage. The German Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech), which supports the German government with technically qualified evaluations and forward-looking recommendations, attached particular importance to the following themes in its position paper on synthetic biology in 2009:
At present the majority of applications are still visions for the future, and synthetic biology remains largely focused on basic research. However, this situation may soon change. The Mycoplasma mycoides cell created in the Venter lab is not yet a cell with a minimal genome and as such cannot yet be used as a chassis for certain syntheses. However, this possibility might not be that far off and many scientists are working hard to turn the vision into reality.