Synthetic biology: Really cool science not yet ready for prime time

Ann MacDonald

Contributor, Harvard Health

One of the joys of working at Harvard Medical School, at least for those of us who are nerds, is the chance to attend free lectures by scientists who are pushing the boundaries of how we understand the world. So while we usually cover practical health-related topics in this blog, I thought I’d take a foray into the fascinating world of synthetic biology.

The impetus? A Sept. 21st lecture hosted by the med school entitled “How to Create Life.”

How could I resist?

It turned out to be a standing-room-only event, proving not only that I’m not the only nerd walking around the campus, but also that this is a hot new field of scientific research.

That being said, it’s time for an important disclaimer: None of what I’m about to describe is ready for immediate clinical use or industrial application. It’s all confined in the laboratory for now. Still, it’s fascinating.

Two scientists spoke. The first, Dr. Pamela A. Silver, is a professor of systems biology at Harvard.  In spite of the lecture’s title, she emphasized that the point of synthetic biology was not to create life but to improve it. The ultimate goal of all this research is to develop new therapies for disease and new environmentally-friendly fuels for vehicles and industry. One example of this: they are trying to design molecules and cells that are engineered to detect DNA damage, which might enable detection of disease at its earliest stages.

(Again – time for my own important anti-hype disclaimer: not yet ready for prime time!)

The second speaker, Dr. George Church, is a professor of genetics at Harvard. Not surprisingly, his focus was on using synthetic biology to make genetic engineering easier and more cost effective. Some long-term goals of his research include finding a way to engineer DNA so that it can travel to areas of the body in need of genetic repair, as well as building multi-virus resistance in cells. They’re also interested in finding ways to develop more environmentally-friendly fuels that can provide an alternative to gas and oil, and to engineer microbes that can counter pollution.

As I noted, all of this is a long way off. But if you’d like to learn more about this work, another place to visit is the sponsor of much of this work, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

You can also watch the entire presentation by following this link.

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