Synthetic Biology

Manuel Selg,

Manuel Selg is a molecular biologist, chemist and Professor of Biotechnology in the Biotechnology and Environmental Technology program at the Upper Austria University of Applied Sciences’ Wels Campus. Since 2008, he’s been a scientific advisor to the Ars Electronica Center. In this capacity, he was involved in setting up the BioLab and its educational program. He also served as expert consultant to the new Project Genesis exhibition. We asked him what synthetic biology actually is, about the current state of knowledge and research in this field, and to assess the prospects for development in the coming years.

Manuel Selg during the construction of the exhibition “Project Genesis” (photo: Martin Hieslmair)

What is synthetic biology?

As a general definition: creating, engendering—dangerous words indeed—a biological system that does not occur naturally. Which means nature didn’t produce this on its own. Whether it’s a single organism or a whole system where several organisms interact, humans are tinkering and producing results that normally don’t occur naturally. Such a system is brought forth by human intervention.
This sounds incredibly risky—after all, it touches upon humankind’s basic ethical-moral principles. But let’s start by citing an example that no one could terribly object to and one that’s been around since the 1970s. Diabetics need to medicate themselves with insulin. It used to be that this insulin was isolated from the pancreas of a pig, or sometimes from cattle. This is a very elaborate and expensive procedure, and it requires an extremely large number of animals, all of which have to be slaughtered to produce the medication. Then someone came upon the idea that insulin could be produced by bacteria, and actually succeeded in doing so. Thus, synthetic biology was already around in the ’70s. This isn’t something that emerged only in the first decade of the 21st century; it has existed for many years.

Where do we stand today?

There’s a very recent example of biologists simply synthesizing an organism that doesn’t exist in nature. Early this year, scientists created mice in which certain brain cells are human and the rest of the mouse is a mouse. We refer to such an organism as a chimera. These mice were created for brain research. These special brain cells, astrocytes, are much larger in the brain of a human being and shaped very differently than those of any other living creature that has them. So, for decades now, some scientists have theorized that perhaps the function of these cells in the human brain is also somewhat greater than among animals, and that this accounts for human beings’ “evolutionary advantage” in comparison to other living creatures on the planet. Various maze tests performed with these mice actually did demonstrate that they have a much greater capacity to learn than normal mice; they learn various things faster and possess superior long-term memory.

Mousetrap by Johanna Schmeer. Genetically modified mice are caught with tweeting of birds from a loudspeaker. (photo: Martin Hieslmair)

But synthetic biology is controversial not only with respect to animals but when it comes to plants as well.

Yes indeed. Scientists are creating plants that normally don’t occur in nature. In the mass media and public discussions, attention quickly turns to genetically modified seeds and to the multinational corporations like Monsanto and Pioneer that produce them. One problem with corn, like with every agricultural crop, is that it’s often attacked by pests. Then in the ’90s, scientists produced the first variety of corn into which a special gene from a bacterium had been implanted. This enables the plant to produce a poison that kills insects so that less insecticide had to be sprayed on the plants. It was only years or decades later that the grave consequences for the ecosystem became apparent. Due to the insecticide produced by the corn itself, the populations of so many insect species in these regions were so drastically reduced that this became a problem for the entire food chain. In the U.S. Midwest, the bees are dying out, and everyone knows how important bees are on account of the role they play pollinating plants.
But this doesn’t mean that genetically modified plants are all bad. For instance, scientists are currently working on plants that can produce certain vaccines. There are vaccines against rabies, hepatitis and tetanus that are already in the clinical trial phase. Vaccines made using classic pharmaceutical production methods are extremely expensive. The idea was that having plants produce them could make them a lot cheaper. And it works too.

When the vaccine is produced in plants, do I still have to get an injection?

For example, you can eat hepatitis B in the form of a banana and you’re vaccinated. Initial testing with animals has been successful. But even if this does become everyday practice in the field of medicine, it still has to be administered under a doctor’s supervision due to the body’s potential reactions to vaccines. Nevertheless, this would induce a major shift in the chain of production—instead of pharmaceutical companies, farmers would suddenly be the producers. Needless to say, these plants will be permitted to grow only in particular areas in order to prevent them from mixing with natural plants and passing on the part with the vaccine.

What are some other visions of the future, or future realities?

In research labs, a big part of synthetic biology is the production of synthetic genomes. The genome refers to the entirety of a living creature’s genetic information. It’s the blueprint of a life form. It’s what makes an organism look the way it does, live in a particular habitat, and react the way it must in order to survive. The dream is be able to artificially create the complete genome of an organism, which would make it possible to assemble organisms with functions that are useful for society. Consider, if you will, the great natural disasters of recent years that have led to environmental catastrophes—for example, Fukushima in Japan or Deepwater Horizon, the drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico—which caused the release of substances like radioactivity or crude oil that pose a serious problem for the environment. Wouldn’t it be great to create a bacterium that could process oil floating on the ocean surface into other less harmful substances? To accomplish this, scientists are striving to create a minimal genome, which is a quantity of genetic material that’s just enough for an autonomous living creature to remain alive. This would be what you might call the basic Lego building block. Then there are the so-called biobricks, pieces of genetic material that can be deployed in it to enable a certain function. Then, you could start with the minimal genome organism and select one of the various biobricks that could inserted into it. That’s the dream—one that’s still a long way from becoming a reality.

As far as what we’re able to do right now: Craig Venter removed the genome from a bacterium, Mycoplasma capricolum—that is, totally denuded the interior of its cell—and, in his laboratory, completely artificially produced the genome of another species of myco-bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides. And then he implanted this artificial genome into the denuded cell of the other species, which then took on the characteristics of the species in which the genome originated. Thus, we’re able to synthesize the complete genome of a living creature and implant it into a living creature, and the result is a viable life form. Now, keep in mind that there’s nothing to be afraid of here! This bacterium’s genome contains 1,000,000 building blocks as compared to 3.2 billion in a human genome. So far scientists have failed in attempts to do the same with the E. coli intestinal bacterium containing 4 million building blocks, so it’s questionable whether we’ll ever be able to accomplish this on the level of the human genome.

Impression of the exhibition “Project Genesis: Synthetic Biology—Life from the Lab” (photo: Martin Hieslmair)

Nevertheless, the sequencing of the human genome has already raised questions for our society.

Yes. The human genome project was launched in the late ’80s to sequence the entire genome of a human being. That took 13 or 14 years and cost over $3 billion to determine the sequence of the individual building blocks that make up the genome. Since then, technical progress has been so rapid that it’s now possible to sequence—that is, read out—a human genome within a week for less than $10,000. Now, scientists in biotechnology are dreaming of the $1,000 genome, which would also include all information indicating the likelihood of a person developing hereditary diseases at some point in his or her life. If this can be ascertained at such a low cost in so short a time, then it becomes attractive for health insurance providers and employers to obtain this information. So, the question becomes: To whom does my genome actually belong? Nowhere has this been established by law.

What can genetic information be derived from?

From any sort of cellular material—for instance, on the rim of the teacup from which you’ve now taken two or three sips, there’s probably already enough biological material from your lips for state-of-the-art technology to read out your entire DNA. This is a scenario that seems threatening, but there’s no need to panic. Nevertheless, society has to get started giving some thought to how we’re going to deal with these things when the time comes. There must be clear legal provisions regulating to whom a person’s genome belongs.

A final question: Why should I visit this exhibition?

This is an exhibition that seeks to provide access to synthetic biology via art. We have to be totally up front about this, in my opinion. At Ars Electronica in general, the spotlight is focused on projects, all of which have been produced by artists and others who are dealing intensively with these issues. But the end result of this has not been to curate an exhibition that only answers questions. This is so because what approaching these issues via art can accomplish is to make society aware that this set of problems exists, to encourage people to start coming to terms with them so that the citizenry can have a basis for an informed opinion when the time comes to deal with these questions. This is important in order to implement effective rules. And the time is approaching when regulation will be imperative.