06 July 2015

The development of synthetic biology may provoke a new industrial revolution

Tatiana Gromova, monthly magazine "Power of Money" No. 7/8-2015

Although synthetic biology has been actively developing relatively recently, more than 100 large laboratories around the world are already working in this field. One of the recognized experts in the field of synthetic biology is world–renowned professor Milan Mrksich, who cooperates with several renowned universities at once: the University of Chicago, the Howard Hughes Institute and the International Institute of Nanotechnology of Northwestern University. In addition, he advised specialized research in the Pentagon laboratories. Milan Mrksich is a laureate of many scientific awards and prizes, author of publications in reputable journals. He told VD about the prospects that synthetic biology promises humanity, as well as its potential dangers.

"VD" Milan, many experts say that synthetic biology is as important for humanity as information technology. 

M.M. It is possible that biotechnologies in general and synthetic biology in particular will lead to a new industrial revolution. These are rapidly developing desktop areas, they open up such fantastic opportunities that, without a doubt, they will give the world completely unique products and open up hitherto unseen prospects. Just imagine: until recently, the organisms of humans, animals, and all living systems were represented as complexes of standard cells, DNA, etc., existing and acting according to a well-defined scheme. Yes, it was possible to make certain adjustments to them, but in a purely "biological", limited framework. And suddenly it turns out that artificial sections, synthetic DNA, capable of assimilating with natural ones and completely changing the body, can be inserted into the body. The most relevant directions today are: innovative methods of treatment, production of vaccines, food and chemical raw materials, including biofuels. Synthetic biology promises, if not a complete victory, then at least a global breakthrough in the fight against disease, hunger, and the energy crisis.

"VD" What technologies does synthetic biology use? 

M.M. First of all, it is the reading of the genome. A real revolution has taken place in this area: the human genome is now read in less than a day with minimal costs. Bioinformatics makes it possible to combine methods of computer analysis of the genome and modeling of the structure of proteins. There are already publicly available international databases containing sequences of decoded genomes, including pathogenic microorganisms. It is difficult to imagine synthetic biology without nanotechnology that allows the synthesis of polynucleotide chains of any length. Thus, for example, an artificial polio virus was created. And in the near future, 4D printers will make it possible to produce any complex objects that independently take the desired shape and design of systems, into which an artificial genome will then be integrated. The most important thing is to synthesize an artificial cell with a minimal set of genes necessary for life and reproduction. It will become the basis for building live systems into which functional blocks are loaded depending on the desired result.

"VD" Is it about creating standard synthetic DNA fragments, which are called "bio-bricks"? 

M.M. Yes, from "bio-bricks" it is possible to assemble complexes of artificial DNA fragments with certain useful functions that are different in composition. That is, it will be mass-produced and ready-to-use parts of DNA. Based on them, it is possible to construct chains with specified characteristics or DNA sections that react to the effects of certain chemicals, light, etc. Such "bricks" will be embedded in a living organism either separately, achieving the necessary functions, or combine several separate artificial parts, combining their properties.

Synthetic biology opens up unique prospects for humanity: by learning how to introduce artificial components into living organisms, you can create the best medicines, food, and cheap energy. It will come to the ideal person

"VD" You mentioned 4D printers. Are you going to use them in the next research?

M.M. The International Institute of Nanotechnology of Northwestern University, with which I cooperate, recently received $8.5 million for the development of a 4D printer that will provide materials scientists, chemists, developers in various fields with "smart" materials. They are able to interact with other materials, the environment and perceive the signals given to them. Objects printed on a 4D printer will be modified to perform new functions thanks to information encoded in nanomaterials. Such machines will help to develop new structures in which dense materials – functional components of electronics – can be combined with biological and soft materials. The scope of application of such products is extremely wide: from medicine to construction and logistics.

"VD" Used to use 3D printers for similar experiments? 

M.M. Yes, Professor Lee Cronin from the University of Glasgow recently created with his team a completely artificial system capable of evolving like the simplest living organisms. The basis of the study was a modified 3D printer that injected metered drops of special solutions into a Petri dish filled with water - it was used to grow cultures of microorganisms. Combinations of different chemical compounds made it possible to create many different compositions. It turned out to be a kind of living drops-robots that, thanks to an energy source, were able to move and live their lives. This is a unique experiment that helps to understand the evolutionary processes in living organisms, and, accordingly, to correct them and manage them. I am sure that the possibilities of 3D printers in the field of synthetic biology have not yet been studied and implemented, but it will be more interesting for me to work with 4D technologies.

"VD" You were a consultant at DARPA, which developments were you in charge of? 

M.M. These are very promising large-scale studies, it is not by chance that the Agency recently created a special department, Biological Technologies Office, which is engaged in the study of biotechnologies, at the junction of biology and mechanical engineering. It is assumed that the new generation of defense technologies will be based on natural forms of life. The department is engaged in the production of biomaterials, turning living cells, proteins and DNA into a kind of genetic plant. The goal is to create artificial living materials that will be used for the next generation of electronics, self-healing materials, renewable fuels, etc. A synthetic chromosome has already been created, which can become the basis for the synthesis of an artificial organism. Biological Technologies Office also intends to develop artificial intelligence for machines on the battlefield, ways to restore lost memory and other brain functions, as well as biological military technologies such as disease detectors, virus vaccines and other innovations necessary for the army.

"VD" Does the Pentagon already have a BioDesign program, within which synthetic beings genetically programmed for immortality are created? 

M.M. As far as I know, the program provides for developments in the field of neurology, epidemiology, diseases, prosthetics and other similar areas. This is the creation of artificial limbs controlled by the power of thought, the maximum fusion of the brain with a cybernetic body, the connection of robotic limbs directly to the brain. Technologies related to the human-machine interface will be used in the development of mind-controlled robots and unmanned aerial vehicles. I do not know what else is being created within the framework of the program.

"VD" Now in the field of synthetic biology there are a lot of experiments with DNA and cells. How promising is this and do you conduct similar research? 

M.M. This is very promising, because in this way the basis for radically new forms of life is created. I have worked with stem cells that can synthesize any type of tissue. This ability can be used in cell therapy to provide a person with at least good health, and at most immortality. To do this, you need to get a strictly defined fabric. And to achieve the desired result, my colleagues and I from the University of Chicago changed the shape of the cell due to the relief of the surface on which it is located. In the course of experiments, it turned out that if you give a cell the shape of a star – pentagon with sharp corners, then it will form a dense structure and such a cell can become a bone tissue cell. The shape of the flower with a soft structure synthesizes a cell of adipose tissue. Research in this direction continues and promises unique results. 

"VD" New biotechnologies can be used not only for good. Take at least the story of the artificial bacterium Cynthia, which, after the destruction of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, began to devour marine life and infect people ... (fiction of the yellow press. All that Cynthia is capable of is to live in greenhouse conditions on everything ready, and no GM microorganisms were used during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Mrksich was silent about this or his refutation was cut out by the editorial board, it is unknown – VM.) 

M.M. Indeed, if used improperly, synthetic biology products can put the environment in real danger. In fact, even genetically modified plants that have become familiar often displace their natural counterparts not only from store shelves, but also from the natural environment. Cases of transmission of resistance to herbicides from genetically modified plants to wild species have been recorded, which made them superweeds. Experiments in clandestine laboratories can lead to the creation of new types of drugs (for example, based on poppy). But the most dangerous thing is the threat of the spread of fundamentally new pathogens of infectious diseases that humanity has not previously encountered. Low cost, relative simplicity and wide availability of technologies provoke self-taught biologists to modify the genetic code of bacteria. The consequences of such uncontrolled, unprofessional experiments can be really fatal.

"VD" What can be done in this situation? 

M.M. Many international and national documents already regulate research in the field of synthetic biology. But, of course, it is necessary to conduct a more thorough assessment of the existing risks, involving the detection and suppression of the activities of various illegal artisanal laboratories. They are the ones who pose the greatest danger now, and with the development of technology, the risks are getting higher. Indeed, in the foreseeable future, automation of biotechnological procedures will open the way to mass production of a huge number of new synthetic living systems, each of which, after leaving the laboratory, can behave completely unpredictably, which will lead to a global catastrophe.

Milan Mrksic
Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago
He graduated with honors from the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of Urbana-Champaign, received a PhD in Physico-Chemical Sciences from the California Institute of Technology
Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago
Member of the Research Council of the Advanced Defense Research Agency DARPA
Member of the Advisory Committee of the Argonne National Laboratory
Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago
Deputy Director at the Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the International Institute of Nanotechnology of Northwestern University
Researcher at Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Consultant at the National American Institute of Health, scientific advisor to the International Assessment Group of Tissue Engineering Programs, the International Assessment Group of Biosensor Technology Programs, founder and science advisor of WMR Biomedical Inc., author of about 160 publications in scientific journals.

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