In 1973, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer spliced the DNA of a frog into a bacterial cell and became the first genetic engineers. In the decades that followed, biotechnology delivered pest-resistant crops, a collection of therapeutics, and it now promises a route to sustainable liquid fuels. In spite of these successes, modern-day genetic engineering is an arcane craft practiced almost exclusively within well-funded university labs and large corporations. Somehow, the most exciting engineering technology on the planet has been rendered inaccessible to all but the most highly trained acolytes.
Things are beginning to change. Practitioners in the field of synthetic biology are working to make building engineered biological systems easier and more reliable. Just as open-source problem solving and groups of self-trained “hackers” precipitated an explosion of breakthroughs in traditional computer programming during the 80s and 90s, recent trends in bioengineering have opened the door for new sources of creativity. Specifically, programmers, physicists, hobbyists, high-school students, and other non-biologists are getting their hands wet in the lab by using the simplified tools and standard DNA parts produced by synthetic biologists.
There is a tendency to get excited about the near-term applications of synthetic biology, such as liquid fuels and improved materials. However, consider what drove the early computer industry. Was it munitions guidance? Code breaking? Accounting? These early uses pale in comparison to the vast array of applications brought about by the democratization of computer technology.
Recently, I served as a judge for the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition held annually at MIT. Over 750 undergraduates spent their summers trying to construct the coolest engineered biological system and showcased them to the judges at the competition’s closing event. The Slovenian team won this year with a set of DNA building blocks for vaccines called Immunobricks that they tested in animal models. Previous iGEM projects have led to over 50 peer-reviewed scientific publications. More importantly, the openness to non-traditional participants has created an explosion of creativity — bacteria engineered to smell like bananas, E.coli that can capture a photograph, a protein balloon that changes the buoyancy of bacteria, and all manner of genetically encoded logic devices that make cells act like computers.
The enthusiasm at iGEM 2008 was palpable. Teams dressed up as life-sized viruses, and the awards ceremony degenerated into an impromptu dance party. The most exciting aspect of iGEM, however, wasn’t the atmosphere or the impressive volume and diversity of work done by almost complete novices, it was what that work suggests about the state of genetic engineering — that it’s getting easier, and the work is just getting started. — Jason Kelly is a synthetic biologist from MIT and co-founder of Ginkgo BioWorks, which develops standards and parts for engineered biological systems.
Originally published December 10, 2008