Are we really in danger of running out of the stuff used to make trillions of things? Can you patent the life found in a petri dish?
The idea of synthetic biology might sound a little strange, even sacrilegious. But the use of chemistry as a tool to address serious societal problems — say, curing or preventing diseases, or getting rid of potentially hazardous pollutants — is hardly novel. The field was first proposed by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in the late 1960s, and the following decade an explosion of complex synthetic-biology projects — most of them being conceived by chemical engineers and biologists — led to an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
That growth faded after the global financial crisis in 2008, and the 2011 FDA advisory committee vote to ban the sale of any products that made a synthetic molecule had a chilling effect. But around 2012, there was a revival, sparked in part by intense interest from the National Institutes of Health in basic research. It culminated, at least in part, in a 2016 paper, published in Nature, by a team led by David Baltimore, the renowned microbiologist, that synthesized an enzyme that modifies the shape of proteins on a manufacturing scale. The resulting drug, which resists the enzyme PEGylation, showed promise as a drug to reduce cholesterol in kidney transplants, and the company that developed it said it could be ready for humans in 2021.
The second part of the Maryland team’s mission is to design, build and test methods for rapidly producing new molecules. The team has developed at least 15 synthetic molecules to date that have a broad potential biomedical use, and recently began collaborating with bioengineering and pharmaceutical companies. One product engineered with a killer molecule found in bacteria to block the harmful effects of antibiotics has already found a clinical trial. The researchers hope to roll out a new molecule next year, and one that reverses some of the damage caused by the chemicals in plastics and perfumes.
For the scientists who call themselves biosurveyors — who in addition to providing services to the biotechnology industry also provide a not-for-profit platform that showcases the work of synthetic biologists — the team is at the vanguard of an attempt to confront some of the world’s most pressing problems. Synthetic biology is one of the fastest-growing fields in all of science, and a growing community of independent scientists is struggling to answer the question: Could this new technology hold the promise of solving problems that we couldn’t tackle before?
“There are only two approaches — get involved, learn, learn, learn — that we as scientists can take,” says Kathleen Boling, a Maryland and CTO at Caltech who uses synthetic biology to answer questions she sees in her research, such as how to get rid of a biological toxin. “As biologists, we have to be exploring every possibility, and we think the best place to start is at the molecular level, trying to identify new technologies and issues and trying to find partners who are interested in addressing them.”
“Scientists have been solving problems for the sake of solving problems for all of the millennia. Yet we’re a species, which was created in order to solve problems,” says Mark Levin, a synthetic biologist and co-founder of Synthetic Genomics, a San Diego-based company attempting to map the genome of the jellyfish in order to help tackle global ocean pollution. “In the future, when we think about sustainable practices, we’re going to ask, ‘Where did we get the eggs from?’ ”
Scientists who work with biotechnology companies often find themselves living on the slippery slope of black patents. In 2017, a Saudi Arabian pharmaceutical company asked for patents on all genetically modified cephalosporin antibiotics, which are not natural, and can help doctors save many lives. The project was funded in part by the kingdom’s Agency for Science and Technology and the National Center for Biological Information, but “we really didn’t want to say that we’re better than our natural ancestors,” says Sybele. “I can’t think of a better way to perpetuate the idea that humans created bacteria.”
Such moral quandaries don’t bother bioengineers all that much, and the pair’s efforts are made possible by deep-pocketed companies, not the NIH. If biotech companies put up the money for expensive tests, there is more opportunity to examine the risks of these new tools in real trials.