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.