Dr. Hamilton Smith, the 1978 Nobel Prize Laureate in Psychology of Medicine, presented a fascinating lecture at the 2014 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Dr. Smith, who won his prize for the discovery and application of the “type-II” restriction enzyme that breaks DNA into manageable parts for individual study. He outlines synthetic biology, the progression of the field, its power, current limits, major tools, and goals. He also describes the processes required to create the first synthetic biology tool, a task he is currently working on with Drs. Craig Venter and Clyde Hutchison. Known as M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, the feat was partially accomplished in 2008.
According to Smith, synthetic biology is not just reshuffling parts in order to create functions that do not exist in nature, but rather creating new parts with improved function that do not exist in nature.
Smith explains that the cost of sequencing, or “reading” a genome has dropped by 7 orders of magnitude since 1990. At the same time, the cost of synthesis has only dropped by 2 orders of magnitude, limiting the progression of the industry.
The power of synthetic biology according to Smith is that one can synthesize any genetic sequence that can be conceived on a computer, as opposed to old-style genetic engineering which restricted a scientist to working with what parts exist in a wild-type cell.
Another limit on current technology is that we don’t yet know how to invent a brand new gene or amino acid that will fold into a specific structure and function in a specific way. Essentially, Smith states that we can only add, modify, delete, or rearrange DNA.
Major tools include the use of Biobricks for the construction of genome, and refactoring, the optimizing code to a more logical form without changing the code’s output. In genetics, this can improve the process of evolution, as any mutations will always take place in functional code, rather than inside junk or non-essential DNA.
The main goal of Drs. Smith, Venter, and Hutchison is the creation of a “minimal cell”, or a cell composed of only those genes required for the robust life functions of the cell, and removing all other “adaptive functions”. Once they do this, they will have created a platform for system biologists to work with to quickly and efficiency test theories and come up with new biological systems with specific functions not found in nature.
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