Thursday, June 2, 2005

Design your own DNA, almost makes one want to turn luddite

Photoshop For DNA (Matthew Herper, 06.01.05, 6:00 AM ET, FORBES.COM)

The new firm, Codon Devices, is aiming to perfect a new technology that would allow scientists to edit sequences of DNA with never-before-seen ease. The leap might be akin to going from having to correct articles with White-Out to editing them onscreen with a word processor. The goal is to move from having to merely tweak the proteins that are used as biotech drugs to being able to design them, even taking material from multiple organisms and using them to create new, functional genes.

"I think if we pull it off, it changes everything to do with our interaction with the living world," says Drew Endy, a young MIT professor who is one of the company's co-founders. "We'll see if it works."

The organic process of evolution is what created the world of flora and fauna around us. And this represents another step forward in terms of scientists sticking bits of DNA together and seeing what happens.

What this raises in my mind is the fear that they'll accidentally create a monster through this. While these scientists know quite a lot about the function of DNA, they don't know it all. Which means they're left to trying lots of combinations, with little ability to predict the results of the combinations. Since they're working to create living organisms, the living organisms may well escape the laboratory, and if it happens to be a deadly organism it could wipe out a tremendous amount of life. Especially as its status as an engineered organism means our bodies and the bodies of other life forms would in now way have a defense against any attack this engineered organism might make. The evolutionary process that created our bodies, and the natural resistance to infecting organisms, takes thousands of years to unfold and create resistance to new organisms.

Of course the only way for the scientists to learn and grow their knowledge is to try out new ideas and see what happens.

Welcome to Codon Devices: Founded by leading scientists at the intersection of engineering and molecular biology, Codon Devices is working to pioneer the emerging field of synthetic biology. The company is currently developing its proprietary BioFAB production platform that is expected to accurately synthesize kilobase- to megabase-length genetic code, orders of magnitude more rapidly and less expensively than currently available technology. In the short term, product opportunities include comprehensive sets of biological parts for large-scale research projects, engineered cells that produce novel pharmaceuticals, engineered protein biotherapeutics, and novel biosensor devices. In the longer term, the company's core technology is expected to enable improved vaccines, agricultural products, and biorefineries for the production of industrial chemicals and energy.

Their dream is very nice isn't it?

They would be relying on the known purpose for DNA, which is that the DNA contains the instructions for producing proteins in our bodies. Raw chemicals go into the cells, and through other chemical signals floating through the body, those raw chemicals get transformed by the instructions in the DNA to create other chemicals (proteins basically) that our bodies need to live.

Hence, the dream for a long time in science is to engineer organisms whose DNA creates the chemicals used in various medicines. Another dream, Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae, is to have organisms that produce useful industrial chemicals, for example this link is to a plan to engineer a breed of Algae that produces oils that can easily be turned into biodiesel that can be burned in a power plant, and you can partially feed the algae growth from the emissions produced by the power plant.

Nice dream. Let's pray it doesn't turn into a nightmare.

UPDATE: My fiancee is a geneticist and read the above article and couldn't see anything in the article that indicated any breakthrough. The article does mention George Church publishing a paper in Nature describing the technique.

This is probably it: Accurate multiplex gene synthesis from programmable DNA microchips (JINGDONG TIAN, HUI GONG, NIJING SHENG, XIAOCHUAN ZHOU, ERDOGAN GULARI, XIAOLIAN GAO & GEORGE CHURCH)

He also wrote an impassioned letter From systems biology to synthetic biology calling for a model of greater sharing of more details that can lead to synthetic biology.