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Synthetic Biology Roundup

Life’s been too hectic lately to keep up with all the cool little synbio nuggets churned up by the Internet over the past couple of weeks. Just wanted to catch up with a few items I particularly enjoyed.

First, this interview from Gizmodo with Michael Specter, who recently wrote a piece on synthetic biology in the New Yorker and has just published a book called Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Discussing fears about a “rogue virus” scenario a la I Am Legend, Specter says:

“The point I’m trying to make is, these things are a little scary. Anything that powerful has to have a downside. And we need to know what the downside is, we need to talk about the downside. And we need to acknowledge it exists and say to ourselves—and sometimes we won’t agree—but say to ourselves, ‘Gee, you know what, the potential benefits outweigh the risks.’ Sometimes we won’t think that. But I do believe that lots of times, given the information, we would think that way.”

On that note, last week the International Association of Synthetic Biology announced that it has finalized a code of conduct for gene synthesis, covering ethics, biosafety, and biosecurity issues, as reported by GenomeWeb. The previous week, a separate group called the International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC), made up five significant producers of synthetic DNA — Blue Heron Biotechnology, DNA2.0, GeneArt, GenScript, and Integrated DNA Technologies — agreed on a protocol for working with governments and other interested parties to help ensure that gene synthesis technologies are not misused.

More fun stuff: Video of Eric Ma, a fourth-year Integrated Science student in Biochemistry and Cancer Biology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and iGem team member, speaking at the TedX event last month in Vancouver, on “What Synthetic Biology Can Do for You.”

Another video, from Andrew Hessell of the Singularity University, provides a roughly hour-long “Introduction to Synthetic Biology” that looks accessible to pretty much any reasonably intelligent person.

Finally, on her Oscillator blog, Harvard grad student and cool person Christina Agapakis writes about various efforts to expand our knowledge of natural microbial genomes well beyond the measly 1,000 microorganisms so far sequenced and cataloged for GenBank, the central public database for genomic information. Explaining why this endeavor matters for synthetic biologists, Agapakis writes:

“In synthetic biology, we use genomic information as a starting off point for the design of new biological pathways, and more genomic data tied to more evolutionary, metabolic, and biochemical information will vastly improve our ability to design new systems. Using gene synthesis technology, we can make genes that come from any organism, even those that cannot be cultured in the lab, and express it in an organism that is easy and safe to work with in the lab, like E. coli. We can thus pick and choose genes out of the genomic data from multiple organisms in order to design a pathway the way we want.

“Most of the time, however, we can’t really tell how the genes will work together from only the sequence information. We can identify genes that do the same thing in different species, but which one will work the best in our chosen strain? At this point, the best way to know is still trial-and-error….  [A] large-scale synthetic approach, in conjunction with more and better genomic data and bioinformatics tools, will be vital to the ability of synthetic biology to achieve its goals.”

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