This is a powerful technology that can harm as well as benefit the human race

Synthetic biology could be used to create lethal strains of microbes or to 'weaponise' viruses

Share
Related Topics

Synthetic biology has become the vogue term for many established fields of scientific research and development, such as molecular biology and biotechnology.

It has also become a hot subject within government because of the immense potential for creating wealth and jobs by generating the sort of highly skilled, knowledge economy that ministers bang on about.

The fact of the matter is that nature does many things rather well, such as converting sunlight into chemical energy, and if we can learn from biology then we might be able to make better and safer things more cheaply and efficiently without destroying the planet.

Humans have been using yeast for centuries in baking and brewing and so it comes as little surprise that scientists are focusing on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to give the fungus its full name, as the model for constructing a complete set of artificial chromosomes.

Yeast is one of the simplest “eukaryotes” (organisms with chromosomes) and was the first such microbe to have its genome fully sequenced.

By making synthetic yeast cells with completely man-made chromosomes, scientists hope to answer some pretty fundamental questions about life, as well as hopefully designing a new kind of industrial platform for novel processes or products.

Craig Venter, the maverick American scientist who helped  to decode the human genome more than a decade ago, has also turned his formidable talents to synthetic biology.

Indeed, in 2008 Dr Venter announced the creation of the first synthetic life-form, a “prokaryote” bacterium with a single, synthetic chromosome painstakingly made in the laboratory. Dr Venter sees synthetic biology as the way to solve many of the biggest problems of the 21st century, such as how to feed an exploding population, expected to reach 10 billion within the next few decades, and how to clean up a planet badly damaged from human exploitation.

But even he is concerned about the ethical dimension to creating new kinds of life-forms, even if they are designed to do seemingly benign things like clearing up polluted water or detoxifying poisoned soil.

Synthetic biology is a powerful technology and we should be prepared for unanticipated surprises. It is also a technology that could easily be misused, for instance to create more lethal strains of microbes or to “weaponise” existing bacteria  or viruses.

We should be aware of the potential dangers as well as the potential benefits of synthetic biology – and plan accordingly.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Leading Sof...

Chemistry Teacher

£90 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Outstanding Teaching Assistants needed f...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Assistant Editor: Domestic violence is no petty matter

Siobhan Norton
 

There’s nothing wrong with GM

Steve Connor
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried