When I told my husband that scientists at the J.Craig Venter Institute had assembled a funtioning bacterium from bottles of chemicals, he said exactly what I was thinking. “It’s like The Stand.” Even if you’re not a Stephen King fan, you’ve probably heard of his novel where a genetically engineered strain of the flu virus wipes out almost every human on earth.
USA Today, on the other hand, said “The long-anticipated advance, reported in the journal Science, is a $40 million milestone in the nascent field of “synthetic biology” and points towards a future of designer microbes manufacturing fuels, chemicals and materials.”
The news that a synthetic bacterium has been created comes as no surprise to most scientists. Even when I worked in a lab ten years ago, we cut and pasted bacterial DNA together on a regular basis. We also synthesized relatively short pieces of DNA by pushing buttons on a machine. The technology has vastly improved since then, and entire bacterial genomes have been sequenced. Scientists know exactly what it takes to make a functioning bacterial cell.
Some good and bad uses for synthetic biology immediately spring to mind:
Good things: Scientists may be able to design bacteria that specifically target certain areas of the human bodies, so that the bacteria could colonize those areas (say, the intestine) and produce and deliver drugs to specific organs without causing harm. You could even turn drug delivery on and off by putting “inducible promoters” which are basically on/off switches, in front of the genes for drug production. You could possibly use the technology to deliver chemotherapy directly to tumors too, if you could create bacteria that recognize and bind to certain proteins produced by tumor cells.
Bad, bad things: Bioweapons. Scientists could potentially piece together nasty bacterial bioweapons that could survive sunlight and even radiation. (Most natural bacteria are relatively fragile and difficult to “disperse” or spread through the air.)
Nature has some controls of her own. Bacteria must contain certain elements to survive and replicate, and sometimes putting foreign DNA into a bacterium will kill it. There are also size limits.
We can only hope that the good that comes from this technological breakthrough outweighs the bad. Later today, I’m planning to pre-order tickets for an amusement park where you’ll be able to see real live dinosaurs in about 20 years.