In theory, synthetic life can be programmed to treat cancer, develop vaccines, combat climate change and create alternative fuels. Building life from scratch has been rather difficult. It took J. Craig Venter, a biologist and entrepreneur, 15 years to build the first synthetic cell made with synthetic DNA. In Venter's lab, researchers are mixing concoctions of DNA that could one day end up in the next generation of vaccines and fuels.
Scientists will have to crack the manufacturing problem if they ever want to bring synthetic biology out of the lab and into the real world. It takes a long time for scientists to tinker with biological materials and turn them into artificial life. Researchers at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) want to take biology experiments and turn them into an engineering platform that is fit for manufacturing cells.
The DARPA initiative is called Living Foundries Industry Day.
The agency's program manager Alicia Jackson told Technology Review that the program would help create new materials that could be used for solar and electronic materials. "We [at DARPA] are that genie in a bottle that will make the impossible inevitable," Jackson said.
Some of the goals of Living Foundries include:
- fabricate cells
- develop and change genetic parts and systems
- integrate cell-like systems with new genetic designs in a predictable way
- develop a DNA synthesis and manufacturing method
- create debugging tools and way of characterizing the properties of the system
The DARPA initiative has the potential to commercialize synthetic biology in a way that's not possible with the existing infrastructure, or lack there of: either a graduate student's hard labor or some enthusiast working in a community lab.
At the hands-on level, biology has already opened up to the general public. Earlier this year, I visited Genspace, the first community biotech lab in the country. Since then, similar labs have set up shop nationwide, giving non-scientists a way to conduct genetic engineering experiments in an actual lab (instead of their basement). Like a gym membership, customers can pay a monthly fee to access to the lab and its amenities. Even if members don’t know anything about biology, they can take training classes in biotech and synthetic biology to brush up on their DIY biotech skills.
The DARPA initiative would further democratize synthetic biology, by speeding up the process of creating new types of materials for industrial use. According to DARPA, "these technological advances and innovations must be integrated to prove-out and push the boundaries of biological design towards the ultimate vision of point-of-use, on-demand, mass-customization biological manufacturing."
Synthetic biologist Daniel Gibson at the J. Craig Venter Institute previously told me, "no matter how many times I do it, it always amazes me that I can design a DNA sequence at the computer and then build it in the laboratory. In the future, all DNA synthesis methodologies will be completely automated from the four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA all the way up to complete bacterial genomes."
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- Will patents give Craig Venter a monopoly over synthetic life?
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- Scientists unveil first self-replicating, synthetic cell
- What ’synthetic life’ could mean for the energy industry
- The problem with patenting genes