Genesis Machine: programming living cells like tiny computers

The following is taken from THE GENESIS MACHINE: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The genesis machine incorporates many different biotechnologies, all of which were created to edit and redesign life. A series of new biological technologies and techniques, which fall largely within synthetic biology, will allow us not only to read and edit the DNA code, but also to write it. Which means that soon we will be programming living biological structures as if they were tiny computers.

It has been possible to edit the DNA code since the early 2010s using one of these technologies: CRISPR-Cas9. Scientists refer to a pair of “molecular scissors” to describe the technique, as it uses biological processes to cut and paste genetic information. CRISPR regularly makes headlines for breakthrough medical interventions, such as modifying the genes of blind people to help them see again. The scientists used CRISPR’s physical molecular scissors technique and glued the DNA molecule back together in a sort of biological collage with letters rearranged in new places. The problem is that researchers cannot directly see the changes made to the molecule they are working on. Each movement requires manipulations in the laboratory which must then be validated experimentally, which makes it very indirect, laborious and time-consuming.

Synthetic biology digitizes the manipulation process. DNA sequences are loaded into software tools – imagine a text editor for DNA code – making edits as easy as using a word processor. Once the DNA is written or modified to the researcher’s satisfaction, a new DNA molecule is printed from scratch using something like a 3D printer. The technology of DNA synthesis (turning digital genetic code into molecular DNA) has improved exponentially. Today’s technologies routinely imprint strings of DNA several thousand base pairs long that can be assembled to create new metabolic pathways for a cell, or even a cell’s entire genome. We can now program biological systems like we program computers. These scientific innovations have fueled the recent and rapid growth of a synthetic biology industry bent on creating high-value applications including biomaterials, specialty fuels and chemicals, drugs, vaccines, and even engineered cells that operate like robotic machines on a microscopic scale. Advances in artificial intelligence have given the field a huge boost, as the better AI gets, the more biological applications can be tested and realized. As software design tools become more powerful and DNA printing and assembly technologies advance, developers will be able to work on increasingly complex biological creations. An important example: we will soon be able to write any virus genome from scratch. This may seem like a scary prospect, given that the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, has, to date, claimed the lives of more than 4.2 million people worldwide. world.

What makes viruses like SARS-CoV-2 – and SARS, H1N1, Ebola and HIV before it – so difficult to contain is that they are powerful microscopic code that grows and reproduces with an unprotected host. You can think of a virus as a USB key that you load into your computer. A virus acts like a USB stick by attaching itself to a cell and loading new code. And as bizarre as it may seem at a time when we are living through a global pandemic, viruses could also be our hope for a better future.

Imagine a synthetic biology app store where you could download and add new functionality to any cell, microbe, plant or animal. Researchers in the UK have synthesized and programmed the first Escherichia coli genome from scratch in 2019. Next, gigabase-scale genomes of multicellular organisms – plants, animals, and our own genome – will be synthesized. We will one day have a technological basis to cure any genetic disease of mankind and in doing so we will unleash a Cambrian explosion of plants and animals modified for uses that are difficult to conceive of today, but which will meet the global challenges we face when it comes to food. , clothing, housing and care for billions of people.

Life becomes programmable and synthetic biology makes the bold promise to improve human existence. Our goal in this book is to help you think about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Over the next decade, we will have to make important decisions: whether to program new viruses to fight diseases, what genetic privacy will look like, who will “own” living organisms, how companies should derive revenue engineered cells and how to contain a synthetic organism in a laboratory. What choices would you make if you could reprogram your body? Would you agonize over whether – or how – to edit your future children? Would you eat GMOs (genetically modified organisms) if it reduced climate change? We have become adept at using natural resources and chemical processes to sustain our species. We now have a chance to write new code based on the same architecture as all life on our planet. The promise of synthetic biology is a future built by the most powerful and sustainable manufacturing platform humanity has ever had. We are on the cusp of a breathtaking new industrial evolution.

The conversations we have about artificial intelligence today – misplaced fear and optimism, irrational excitement about market potential, statements of willful ignorance from our elected officials – will mirror the conversations we will soon have about synthetic biology , an area that is receiving more and more investment because of the new coronavirus. As a result, breakthroughs in mRNA vaccines, home diagnostic tests, and antiviral drug development are accelerating. Now is the time to move the conversation forward at the level of public consciousness. We just don’t have time to wait anymore.

The promise of this book is simple and straightforward: if we can expand our thinking and strategy on synthetic biology today, we will be closer to solutions to the immediate and long-term existential challenges posed by climate change, insecurity world food and human longevity. . We can prepare now to fight the next virus outbreak with a virus that we design and send into battle. If we wait to act, the future of synthetic biology could be determined by struggles over intellectual property and national security, as well as protracted lawsuits and trade wars. We must ensure that advances in genetics will help humanity, not irrevocably harm it. The code of our future is being written today. Recognizing this code and deciphering its meaning is where the new origin story of mankind begins.