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UVa researchers see promise in 'synthetic biology'

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The phrase “synthetic biology” may sound like science fiction, but some biology students at the University of Virginia say this field will play an important role in lives over the next few years.

Scientists in the field are producing cheap malaria drugs, using bacteria to clean up chemical waste and reducing resistance to antibiotic drugs.

In the future, people could be eating vanilla and cheese produced from yeast or using laundry detergent and makeup derived from algae.

“It’s something we’re going to see a lot more of,” said Tom Moss, a second-year biology major. “(And) there’s a lot of misconceptions about it.”

Moss is in a small group of students and faculty members that organized a recent public meeting on synthetic biology at U.Va.’s OpenGrounds building. The goal is to help the public understand the importance of this field.

Synthetic biology is related to — but not synonymous with — genetic modification. While genetic modification may involve replacing or changing individual genes within an organism, synthetic biology involves far more extensive changes, such as completely re-engineering the genomes of microorganisms to create “designer” proteins or engineer viruses to attack bacteria harmful to humans.

“Genetic modification takes more of a top-down approach. It takes an existing genetic circuit and modifies that,” said Cara Broshkevitch, a third-year biology student. “Synthetic biology takes a bottom-up approach.”

“It’s kind of like putting together Legos,” she added. “You’re putting together the pieces to create a functional system.”

Using this technology, biologists could engineer bacteria that dispose of chemical waste or produce biofuels. It could also lead to artificial cells that deliver medicine to certain parts of the body more efficiently.

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The organisms could come with a genetic “kill switch” that ensures they die when no longer needed — for example, the bacteria used in spill cleanups could die when exposed to sunlight.

Synthetic biology also has some more mundane uses, especially in consumer products. One company makes soap and detergent that uses genetically altered algae in place of palm kernel oil, reducing its environmental impact.

Vanilla, traditionally extracted from a plant, could be created in a lab, as could vegan “cheese” that uses no milk.

Genetic modification already riles some people, and there’s a debate over whether products of synthetic biology should be specially labeled.

The students did not weigh in one way or another, but said many of these products are identical to the ones they emulate.

“I think it’s a lot to do with giving consumers information and how relevant companies think it is,” said Grace Mantus, a third-year biology student. “Whether it’s natural vanilla or synthetic vanilla, it’s chemically the same product.”

So how risky is the field of synthetic biology?

Like anything else, Moss said, it can be misused.

The field is heavily regulated by the government, Mantus said, and it would be very hard for an average person to re-create what scientists do in the lab.

“What they would have access to is nowhere near what you’d need to do something harmful,” she said. “The likelihood of it being misused is very small.”

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