More on synthetic biology and nanotechnology

There’s a lot of interesting recent commentary about synthetic biology on Homunculus, the consistently interesting blog of the science writer Philip Ball. There’s lots more detail about the story of the first bacterial genome transplant that I referred to in my last post; his commentary on the story was published last week as a Nature News and Views article (subscription required).

Philip Ball was a participant in a recent symposium organised by the Kavli Foundation “The merging of bio and nano: towards cyborg cells”. The participants in this produced an interesting statement: A vision for the convergence of synthetic biology and nanotechnology. The signatories to this statement include some very eminent figures both from synthetic biology and from bionanotechnology, including Cees Dekker, Angela Belcher, Stephen Chu and John Glass. Although the statement is bullish on the potential of synthetic biology for addressing problems such as renewable energy and medicine, it is considerably more nuanced than the sorts of statements reported by the recent New York Times article.

The case for a linkage between synthetic biology and bionanotechnology is well made at the outset: “Since the nanoscale is also the natural scale on which living cells organize matter, we are now seeing a convergence in which molecular biology offers inspiration and components to nanotechnology, while nanotechnology has provided new tools and techniques for probing the fundamental processes of cell biology. Synthetic biology looks sure to profit from this trend.” The writers divide the enabling technologies for synthetic biology into hardware and software. For this perspective on synthetic biology, which concentrates on the idea of reprogramming existing cells with synthetic genomes, the crucial hardware is the capability for cheap, accurate DNA synthesis, about which they write: “The ability to sequence and manufacture DNA is growing exponentially, with costs dropping by a factor of two every two years. The construction of arbitrary genetic sequences comparable to the genome size of simple organisms is now possible. “ This, of course, also has implications for the use of DNA as a building block for designed nanostructures and devices (see here for an example).

The authors are much more cautious on the software side. “Less clear are the design rules for this remarkable new technology—the software. We have decoded the letters in which life’s instructions are written, and we now understand many of the words – the genes. But we have come to realize that the language is highly complex and context-dependent: meaning comes not from linear strings of words but from networks of interconnections, with its own entwined grammar. For this reason, the ability to write new stories is currently beyond our ability – although we are starting to master simple couplets. Understanding the relative merits of rational design and evolutionary trial-and-error in this endeavor is a major challenge that will take years if not decades. “

2 thoughts on “More on synthetic biology and nanotechnology”

  1. The last quote was a cause for interest by those who read today’s post. Used to functioning at the ‘Speed of Light’ as my crew is, they simply thought that ‘Tossing the problem on the table and hacking it into shape’ would be the logical route to go. In due course, the saner, more disciplined parts of their collective intelligence held sway over the rabble and thinking began in earnest.
    The Ilulissat Statement is unique in that it is the culmination of work by a group of people dedicated to the task which brought them together. Where the development goes from here depend most essentially on rational minds prevailing so that creative development can occur without being hijacked by anyone’s specific agenda.
    I would hope that the work of the community continues as a community effort for the benefit of the whole so we may see grand development in the near, rather than far future.
    For ourselves, and the people with whom we communicate and affect change in a positive way, we will continue to promote the rational road and support all who travel on it.

    One quick ‘All about me note’. My Daughter Katherine advises that we have successfully completed negotiations for ‘Rooms’ in the Thornhill Road, N1, London, which I shall be working out of from 2007-09-21 until 2007-10-31. It is my great hope that as many of my UK contacts will grace the threshold and share a meal while we are there. This will likely be a twice yearly occurrence as there is a growing interest in our program in the UK.

  2. Halfway through a long bioreactor paper…
    Other than the long-term solution of federal or international multilateral funding to make ivory tower bio-journals Open Access, the best way to accelerate the bio-economy may be to develop better in situ bioreactor biosensors. It will be very difficult to optimize the operation of bioreactors without accurate real-time feedback.
    Err, as to how to get more biosensor research proposals funded by granting agencies, and more biostartups funded by ventures and angels…
    Big chemical and agriculture companies seldom pay the full societal costs of chemical spills and Monsanto has already spit on small Canadian farmers. Maybe they could clean up their image by initiating a new Venture Cap fund and entering the banking sector, perhaps through an existing industry lobby group?

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