Tracy Staedter

Apr 19th 2019

From Antibiotics to Aliens: The Potential of Synthetic Biology


Every factory that produces a product has the instructions and infrastructure to make it happen. There are workers, assembly lines, maintenance crews, power supplies, packagers and, of course, the blueprints. Nature has factories, too. They are biological cells, which also contain workers (ribosomes), assembly lines (endoplasmic reticulum), maintenance crews (lysosomes), power supplies (mitochondria or chloroplasts), packagers (Golgi apparatuses) and the blueprints (DNA molecules) that manufacture goods (proteins and enzymes).

Recently, scientists have tapped into new manufacturing techniques that merge the principles of human-made factories with cellular biology. The result is synthetic biology. In this area of research, scientists draw from chemistry to build and assemble DNA molecules, the life-giving genetic code inside every cell. Pieced together in new ways, these synthesized molecules perform new tasks or produce instructions that, when inserted into a cell, prompt the cell to output a novel product. They could make new antibiotics, feed nutrients to crops and even store digital data. In addition, techniques from synthetic biology were recently used to build an exotic strand of DNA that could form the basis of alien life. Here are just a few of the nearly infinite possibilities this new field offers.

Make New Antibiotics

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a global threat to human health. About 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year in the United States, and at least 23,000 people die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A handful of companies are harnessing the tools of synthetic biology to engineer microbes that produce new classes of antibiotics, which could save millions of lives.

In 2018, for instance, the University of Plymouth in the U.K. spun out the company Amprologix, based on research by Mathew Upton, a professor in medical microbiology. Upton devised a method for genetically engineering bacteria to produce epidermicin, a compound called a peptide that’s made of amino acids and destroys the cell membrane of bacteria, causing them to die. In laboratory tests, epidermicin killed methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA, as well as streptococcus and enterococcus, even if the microbes had shown resistance to other antibiotics.

In partnership with the company Ingenza, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Amprologix will develop a cream that contains epidermicin. A single dose has been shown to be as effective as six doses of the antibiotics currently used to treat MRSA infections, the University of Plymouth reports.

Reduce Nitrogen Pollution in Agriculture

Farmers everywhere use nitrogen fertilizer to grow staple crops such as corn, wheat and rice. Globally, fertilizer use has gone up 25 percent since 2008, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Excess nitrogen pollutes the air and causes toxic algal blooms in lakes, rivers and oceans. A new business partnership between Gingko Bioworks and Bayer, a German multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company, could help farmers reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizer, reports Xconomy.

The venture, Boston-based Joyn Bio, will tap into the Bayer’s vast database of agricultural microbes, looking for those with genes that allow the microorganism to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into the kind of nitrogen nutrient plants need to thrive. Researchers will then rely on Gingo Bioworks’s “foundry” of new manufacturing systems that quickly make, read, test and edit strands of DNA to find the best, most effective sequences. The DNA sequences are then inserted into microbes, which can be colonized in large batches. Planted with seeds, the microbes grow with the roots and encourage the kind of symbiotic relationship between bacteria and plant that already exists naturally in legumes. Essentially, the microbes “fix” nitrogen for the plant and, in return, the plant produces food-like sugar for the microbes. The goal is a future of sustainable farming, where growers use far less nitrogen while achieving the same or better yields, the companies said in a press statement.

Store Digital Data

All the genetic code needed to make a biologically functioning human resides in a strand of DNA. That’s about 6 gigabytes of information, according to Decoded Science. The ability to store so much complex information in the microscopic space of a molecule is mind-boggling. All the data in the world could be contained in three gallons of DNA, reports Nanalyze. And DNA is a stable molecule that theoretically could last a million years. It should come as no surprise, then, to find that some synthetic biology companies are developing methods for storing data in DNA.

Twist Bioscience, based in San Francisco, is one such company. It has a technique for storing digital data, the 1s and 0s of computer language, into the genetic code of DNA, the nucleotide bases of adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). In 2017, researchers at the company accurately stored and retrieved about 140 megabytes of digital audio — “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple and “Tutu” by Miles Davis — in DNA, they reported in a press statement. That same year, the company partnered with Microsoft to test the feasibility of longtime storage using DNA. In collaboration with the University of Washington, Twist Bioscience and Microsoft launched the #MemoriesInDNA Project to compile “10,000 original images from around the world to preserve them indefinitely in synthetic DNA.”

According to a spokesperson from Twist Bioscience, DNA storage could provide a new type of medium for files that need to last for long periods of time but may be read infrequently. Instead of putting archival files on hard drives or thumb drives, future generations will secure them in DNA, where they will keep for thousands of years.

Hint at Alien Life

As stated previously, DNA contains four nucleotide bases — adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). In February 2019, a NASA-funded research team used synthetic biology to make DNA with eight nucleotide bases. To A, C, G, and T they added P, B, Z and S. They named the new molecule “hachimoji,” from the Japanese “hachi,” meaning “eight,” and “moji,” meaning “letter.” According to a press statement, the synthetic hachimoji DNA is structurally sound and, like regular DNA, can store, transmit and evolve information in living systems. It’s not a life form, but a model of a genetic structure different from our own that could still sustain self-replicating life. The research team, led by Steven Benner at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, published their results in Science.

But why make such a DNA? According the statement, the team saw it as a viable way for recognizing alien life. “By carefully analyzing the roles of shape, size and structure in hachimoji DNA, this work expands our understanding of the types of molecules that might store information in extraterrestrial life on alien worlds,” Benner said in the press statement.

As the world faces pressing global health and environmental problems, new manufacturing methods are providing novel solutions to humanity. And like technological revolutions before it — such as the industrial revolution, the “green revolution” for agricultural and the information technology revolution for computers, synthetic biology is rising up. No doubt, it will shape the future of business and society.