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Synthetic Biology

  • Category
    Science & Technology
  • Published
    2nd Mar, 2022

Context

The Centre is working on a national policy on synthetic biology, an emerging science that deals with engineering life forms for a wide range of applications from making designer medicines to foods.

Background

  • As part of the 12th Five-Year Plan, India had set up a task force on systems biology and synthetic biology research in 2011.
  • This body underlined the potential benefits from synthetic biotechnology in biofuels, bioremediation, biosensors, food and health and made a strong case for a push for the technology.
  • It highlighted that India could be a world leader as a protector and supporter of “open source biological platforms”.

Analysis

What is Synthetic Biology?

  • Synthetic biology, field of research in which the main objective is to create fully operational biological systems from the smallest constituent parts possible, including DNA, proteins, and other organic molecules.
  • The synthetic systems created may be used to generate products ranging from ethanol and drugs to complete synthetic organisms such as complex bacteria that can digest and neutralize toxic chemicals.
  • Ideally, these customized synthetic biological systems and organisms would be much safer and less complicated than approaches based on the manipulation of naturally occurring biological entities.

Applications of synthetic biology:

  • Redesigning organisms so that they produce a substance, such as a medicine or fuel, or gain a new ability, such as sensing something in the environment, are common goals of synthetic biology projects.
  • Some examples of what scientists are producing with synthetic biology are:

Application in pharmaceuticals:

  • For instance, researchers have been working on the synthetic manufacture of the antimalarial drug artemisinin, which is produced naturally in the sweet wormwood plant, a slow-growing species.
  • Scientists have been trying to create new forms of bacteria that can destroy tumors.
  • S. Department of Defense has experimented with the creation of biological computers, and other military scientists are trying to engineer proteins and gene products from scratch that will act as targeted vaccines or cures.

Application in Biofuels:

  • In the area of biofuels, scientists at numerous companies are trying to create microbes that can break down dense feedstocks to produce biofuels.
  • Modify the genes of microbes to secrete oil. If successfully scaled up for commercial production, these organisms could serve as valuable sources of renewable energy.

Other Applications:

  • Microorganisms harnessed for bioremediation to clean pollutants from our water, soil and air.
  • Rice modified to produce beta-carotene, a nutrient usually associated with carrots, that prevents vitamin A deficiency.
  • Yeast engineered to produce rose oil as an eco-friendly and sustainable substitute for real roses that perfumers use to make luxury scents.

Risk assessment of synthetic biology:

  • Synthetic biology is not without its risks. However, there is some debate as to whether synthetic biology represents categorically different risks from those posed by other forms of biological research and genetic engineering.
  • Both genetically engineered and synthetic organisms are capable of reproducing, mutating, evolving, and spreading through the environment, which makes them riskier than hazardous chemicals.
  • There is concern over so-called emergent properties, which could arise unexpectedly when genes with no natural lineage enter the environment and interact with one another.

What are the ethical and social implications?

  • Projects that propose to synthesize entire genomes raise important ethical questions about potential harms and benefits to society.
  • Many of the ethical questions relevant to synthetic biology are similar to ethical discussions related to genome editing.
  • Are humans crossing moral boundaries by redesigning organisms with synthetic biology techniques?
  • If synthetic biology yields new treatments and cures for diseases, who in our society will have access to them?
  • What are the environmental impacts of introducing modified organisms into the ecosystem?
  • Such ethical questions have been the subject of research since the beginning of the Human Genome Project and will continue to be researched as technology evolves and changes.
  • Most scientists, ethicists and policymakers agree that entire societies must discuss and weigh the potential harms and benefits of synthetic biology in order to answer these questions.

Way forward:

Synthetic biology is seen as one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies as part of the new industrial revolution that are most likely to change the world.

The regulatory challenge is how to leverage its anticipated benefits while guarding against its potential risks. The laws and regulations framework governing traditional tools and products of biotechnology can be applicable to this relatively nascent field in some ways, but most often it fails to fully adapt to the evolving possibilities of synthetic biology.

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