Innocence and Syn

At this science fair, students are creating new forms of life.

I was thinking that someday my grandchildren might ask me (the way I once asked an elderly relative about watching color television in 1950), “What did a brand-new kind of life form look like the first time you saw it?” And I would have to say, like plain old bacteria.

It was supposed to look like a pretty woman in a nice hat. An intense college senior from the University of Calgary was demonstrating a new “bacterial printer” to a small gathering at the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition at MIT, held earlier this month. Like all printers everywhere—sooner or later—this one was on the blink. A color image of the woman had been rendered on a computer screen in high contrast black-and-white, and then transmitted as a series of commands to a laser poised above a petri dish, which was supposed to house a new kind of bacteria this student and his classmates had created. The bacteria would sense the presence of specific wavelengths of light and respond by glowing (bacterial laser printer!) or releasing an acid to eat away at the substrate in the dish (bacterial Etch-a-Sketch?), but something wasn’t working with the light-sensing. A young woman from NYU challenged the usefulness of this new machine. Lasers, the Calgary student said, could encourage specially programmed bacteria to grow along precise, microbe-thin lines, and these lines might be induced to act like wires and form the basis for a “bacterial Internet.”  I left the two of them to figure out what the hell that meant and headed to the Caltech team’s presentation of a new bacteriophage they’d been working on—a viral hitman that might, in the nearish future, be targeted to kill whatever kind of cell you wanted.

Now in its fourth year, iGEM has quickly become the worldwide showcase and recruitment event for the young field of synthetic biology. In case you haven’t heard of it yet, a quick review: Synbio is the latest stage in our attempt to fully engineer living things, starting with artificial DNA synthesized from scratch and assembled to order, and moving on to standardized genetic “parts” and “devices.” Think of DNA as circuitry, ripe for improvement; wetware replacing hardware and software; the creation of living organisms designed to do what precisely we want them to do. The promises and hopes of synbio range from mitigating climate change to short-circuiting cancer, restoring extinct species, and creating living supercomputers.

Although a few venture capitalists have seeded synbio ventures with serious money, and a few watchdog groups have begun to look at the ethical implications of the field, synthetic biology is still largely in the hands of a few basic researchers working on a small scale around the world. But the ranks are swelling. The 550 students present in Cambridge weren’t angling for corporate contracts; they just wanted win the shiny iGEM trophy for making the coolest new organism. In their various team-colored T-shirts, name tags affixed to their chests, they moved in and out of the auditoriums, delivered sophisticated slide-show presentations of their research, consumed a shockingly large lunch order of Chinese takeout, and possibly even flirted.

MIT professors Drew Endy, Tom Knight, and Randy Rettberg founded iGEM and organize the annual meeting along with a crew from MIT’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts.  Drew Endy is also president of the BioBricks Foundation, a nonprofit that resists the aggressive patenting of genetic pathways fundamental to the new bioengineering, advocating instead for “open source” biology. One of the goals of this month’s jamboree was to build up the registry’s collection of BioBricks—interchangeable DNA sequences with well-described and reliable functions, or “parts,” to a synthetic biologist.  Teams were supposed to use BioBricks from years past in their creations and to invent new ones of their own, which they contributed to the registry by the hundreds. 

In addition to the Calgarians and CalTechies, and a slew of other American and Canadian competitors, there were student competitors from universities in India, Mexico, Great Britain, Turkey, Taiwan, Russia, Colombia, China, Australia, Japan—56 teams in all, including a group of high-schoolers from San Francisco.  All had created new life: self-flavoring and self-coloring yogurt bacteria; bacteria that mimic the behavior and properties of red blood cells; “infector detector” organisms that indicate the presence of antibiotic-resistant microbes; a virus that could potentially be used to find and kill breast cancer cells; a living two-cell mercury-detection-and-removal crew for water filtration; and microbes that change color in a pattern meant to mimic fans doing the wave at a Mexican soccer match. I listened as a young Slovenian woman with hair dyed blood-red gave a cogent description of the University of Ljubljana’s project: By adding new parts to the DNA of mammalian cells, the team was able to create a “Virotrap” for HIV-1 that appears to be based solely on the actions of the virus as opposed to matching up with its DNA—which means the trap is undeterred by the virus’s tendency toward rapid mutation.  

But for all that, there were fewer actual examples of new life forms on display than I’d hoped.  In a world where genetic material can be built to spec from sugar, the code is as good as the living thing—and flow charts are even better. The hallways of MIT’s Stata Center were filled with oversized posters depicting, schematically, all of the exciting stuff going on with surface-expression proteins, AIDA-1 with an N-terminus insertion, sigma-54 factor, IPTG uptake, osmolarity detector pOmpR, and the like. We are not yet in the land of cats-with-wheels-for-feet, or, as one senior synthetic biologist suggested, decorative pink mosses that wander around our lawns. For now, synbio is all about bacteria and viruses, and, more importantly, the new parts used to create them. Single-celled eukaryotes are still far off, and new multicellular organisms even further.

Not that homemade bacteria and viruses aren’t sufficiently alarming. One iGEM participant I spoke to—an undergraduate mathematician from Mexico City—had taught himself enough biology in a few months to start inventing brand-new organisms. What if a self-taught terrorist managed to create build-it-yourself smallpox kits, or made a supervirus combining the worst of whatever he could find? The synthetic biologists that I spoke with at iGEM, and later at an open meeting called by the BioBricks Foundation, believe that threats of bioterror are overblown. At the same time, synthetic biologists can seem resigned to the potential risks of what’s to come. Drew Endy, presiding over the two-day discussion of fieldwide technical and legal standards, spoke several times of the “garagistas” of the near future who will be tinkering with new life forms the way PC enthusiasts tinkered with motherboards and software in the 1970s. Standards and protocols imply civil agreement, basic collective goals, and accountability. But synbio hacks life, and there seems little question that it will attract some classic, lone-wolf hackers, as well as groups or individuals with malign intentions.

What can be done about that?  Endy doesn’t evince much faith in legislative oversight.  “There is no country in the world that has a biosecurity plan that makes any sense,” he told the BioBricks convention. More engineers than biologists, the synthetic biologists hope to outengineer the problem—and create organisms that can’t survive in the wild, can’t reproduce, can’t easily mutate.

But the kids at iGEM, flushed with camaraderie and the fruition of months of hard work, seem unimpressed by any specters lurking in the shadows. As the last day of the iGEM jamboree drew to a close, the team finalists presented their work to the assembled group in a large auditorium at the Kresge Center. While everyone waited for the judges to determine the winner, MIT professor Randy Rettberg stepped to the mic. “You are the world leaders in synthetic biology,” he told the youth.  “This is the beginning of a new industry, and people at iGEM will start that industry. I expect you to have the startups, I expect you to have the private jets, and I expect you to call me up and offer me a ride.”  Backpacks stowed beneath their seats, his audience fiddled with their laptops and cheered when Rettberg began a slide show of snapshots from the weekend.

After what seemed like hours of deliberation, the team from Beijing won the grand prize.  They’d made a DNA “switch” that launched a division of labor among bacteria, allowing a single population to differentiate and take on more than one job at once in response to the same stimulus. Onstage, the smiling Peking University students hoisted their trophy high. A little while later, the world’s biggest collection of synthetic biologists gathered for a bird’s-eye photograph. They mustered in clumps of T-shirt-color-coordinated teammates and gazed upwards at the lens, like colonies of bacteria crowding on a giant petri dish.