Synthetic Biology – A review of April’s SciBar

What a year it’s been. 12 months ago the Nottinghamshire branch of the British Science Association launched SciBar in the VAT & Fiddle pub. Since then there have been 11 talks (there was no SciBar in December as the last Wednesday of the month was New Year’s Eve) with topics ranging from silver to sand and from drinking to dimensions.

To celebrate a first birthday there was cake of course. As befits an organisation such as the British Science Association, it was a Spongebob Squarepants cake. More importantly there was Professor Brigitte Nerlich from the University of Nottingham talking about synthetic biology and whether we should worry about it.

According to a recent Public Attitudes to Science survey, 91% of people felt that they were uniformed about synthetic biology. On the flip side, people felt that they were well informed about climate change and vaccination. It’s interesting that they are arguably the two most controversial subjects in science at the minute.

While we know what biology is, what is “synthetic”?

  • Artificial synthesis
  • Man-made
  • Imitation
  • Opposite of analysis (putting together rather than pulling apart)

The word has even been in the news recently following a Twitter spat between Elton John and Dolce & Gabbana after one of their designers made a comment about “synthetic” babies.

After a few dictionary definitions, we get a brief history lesson. In 1828 Friedrich Wohler accidentally converted an inorganic compound into an organic one. Hermann Kolbe coined the term “synthetic” and made acetic acid from inorganic compounds in 1845.

Barbara Hobom was genetically engineering recumbent DNA and actually coined the phrase “synthetic biology” in 1980. Then in 2010 Craig Venter created the first synthetic cell.

So, specifically, synthetic biology is the design, modelling and construction (or engineering) of new biological systems. Alternatively, it can also be the redesigning of existing systems. It involves the manipulation of the DNA of micro-organisms such as yeast and e-coli. For example, the team that Brigitte is part of are currently engineering yeast strains to produce alternatives to petro-based chemicals.

But what kind of images of synthetic biology are floating around in the public sphere? We’re shown pictures representing “a factory in a cell” and “nature inspired factories”. We are shown images of “bio bricks” which raises the question of whether we’re just playing. Drew Endy was a big fan of Lego and now writes “Adventures in Synthetic Biology”

As always with technology like this, there is the accusation of “Playing God” (as an atheist, the response to that is; if we don’t, who will?) Similarly, when talking about the human genome project, Bill Clinton said that we were “speaking the language in which God designed life”

Other people have referred to synthetic biology as “writing the book of life”, “editing genomes”, “designing life” and “digitising life”. In fact there are those who think that 3D printing of life might be possible one day.

So, what can synthetic biology be used for? In 1982 the first biosynthetic insulin was created. Now, 70% of the insulin sold worldwide is produced by engineered organisms. In 2013, a new Malaria drug was developed. Then there is research into antibiotics, biofuels, flavours and fragrances.

With all the talk of “Playing God”, should we be worrying about synthetic biology? Well, in 2003, a code of conduct was created for best practises in gene synthesis. Then, in 2012, a synthetic biology roadmap was laid down, promising responsible research and innovation. Brigitte has also been thinking about suggesting something similar to the iron ring that Canadian engineers wear (the ring is a reminder of the engineer’s obligation to live by a high standard of professional conduct)

At the moment, the team at Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre that Brigitte is attached to are looking at producing fuels that modern society needs in a cleaner and greener way. They are also researching ways of recycling waste gas.

It was a really interesting talk, although it does seem difficult to see where the boundaries are between synthetic biology, organic chemistry and genetic engineering. In a fascinating Q and A session, we also learned about bio-plastics that you can put into your compost bin. Brigitte also talked about the Woodrow Wilson Centre whose website has an A-Z list of synthetic biology products.

SciBar returns on the 27th of May at 7:30 at The VAT & Fiddle. The talk is going to on dinosaurs which is great timing as it’s taking place two weeks before the release of Jurassic World.