Monday, 9 June 2008
Synthetic biology is bringing an engineering approach to biology. In the same way as one uses electronic components such as transistors to engineer electronic circuits such as a radio, in synthetic biology, scientists are using DNA components to engineer new biological systems and devices.
There are seemingly two separate goals currently being sought within the field of synthetic biology at the moment. The most headline grabbing is that which seeks to define and build completely new forms of life. The other less glamorous seeks to modify existing biological life forms to effectively put viruses and bacteria to work as biological machines to solve particular problems. The advances in understanding DNA over recent years opens the door to both of these. Huge benefits could accrue from successful applications of such biological machinery. One example could be a liquid that changes colour when sprayed onto a surface if there is some particular bacteria present.
The dangers of this technology are many. Any errors in synthetic biological research could release a virus into the world (either deliberately or accidentally) which can multiply itself before we know how to cope with the escape. There is also the possibility of biological terrorism from this type of material falling into the wrong hands. Finally synthetic biology raises interesting questions about what life is and what should humans do and how far the creation of living organisms should go!