A New Science
Since I was younger, I’ve always been in love with medicine and the human body. I remember that my mother always encouraged me to study medicine and become a doctor. However, that really never attracted me.
In fact, when somebody mentions the word doctor, the first images that pop into my mind are ones of hospitals, surgeries, or a doctor’s room. I don’t know about you, but for me that sounds totally boring.
Fortunately, this doesn’t need to be the same anymore. We’ve come to a time in which doctors aren’t necessarily the best option to cure a disease, and nature could turn out not to be the best designer for itself.
“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” — James Joyce
Going from tissue engineering to gene editing, biotech uses biological processes, organisms, cells, or cellular components to develop new technologies, and ultimately solve health-related problems.
📋 Gene Sequencing
You’ve probably heard about that time when President Clinton announced that scientists had finished sequencing the human genome. But what does that even mean?
Everything arises from knowing the code. If you don’t know what the instructions manual contains, how are you going to modify it?
Broadly, Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) — the latest version for how scientists read the DNA — is done by adding color to gene letters (A, C, G, and T). Those are then added to the sequence of DNA we want to know, and it is read by a machine. A more detailed explanation of this process is:
- Library preparation: the DNA sample is broken down, and specialized adapters are glued to each side of the strands. Those fragments are PCR amplified and purified with gel
- Clustering: the library is put in a flow cell, the fragments attach there, complimentary fragments arrive and that’s called a Bridge Amplification Cycle,
- Sequencing: fluorescent DNA fragments are attached and read
- Data analysis: genetic trees
Sequencing the first human genome lasted 2 decades and costed more than 3B dollars. The cost of sequencing has dramatically decreased from $100M to around $1000. The cost is expected to decrease even further to $100 and to be less time-consuming.
🔧 Gene Therapy and Mutations
Once the sequence is known and understood, we would want to use gene therapy when there’s a genetic disease caused by a mutation in a specific gene. The types of mutation that can occur and give rise to a problem like this are:
- Missense: a single change in a DNA basepair causes a whole amino acid to be different, and as a consequence, the correct protein isn’t produced
- Nonsense: similar to the former, but in this case, the cell is able to correct the mistake on time
- Insertion: just as it sounds, a basepair is added to the sequence, making the protein to work differently
- Duplication: a gene is copied more times than the normal, altering the function of the resulting protein
- Frameshift: the addition or loss of DNA bases in a gene, cause the protein to not function properly
- Repeat Expansion: a repeat in a small sequence of DNA. ACG -> ACGACGACG
In a genetic therapy, a DNA sequence is introduced into a patient’s body in order to treat a genetic disease. The new DNA usually contains a functioning gene to correct the effects of a disease-causing mutation.
There are two main types of editing: somatic and germline. The former can consist of modifying any of the — almost — 200 types of cells in our body (or any organism’s), except for those that produce egg or sperm cells.
In this sense, germline editing is the most controversial one, because it would involve changing the code that has remained untouched for millions of years, and pass those changes to the next generation.
Some of the most popular and advanced methods to genetically modify organisms are: CRISPR, Prime Editing, and Base Editing. If you want to learn about gene editing in more detail, I recommend checking out this article:
Putting more life into life
At its core, synthetic biology is a marriage between engineering principles and biotechnology. If DNA sequencing is about reading DNA, genetic engineering is about editing DNA, synthetic biology is about programming new DNA.
Synthetic biologists can either design biological components and systems that wouldn’t normally exist in the natural world or redesign the already existing ones, to have an enhanced function.
The building blocks used in this science are called bio-bricks. Pretty much as LEGO blocks, these biological parts can be joined with others to create biological circuits i.e much more complex systems.
The most known application of synbio is the insulin that is used to control the glucose levels in diabetes. Before scientists thought about this, diabetics had to consume insulin from pigs!
We can also leverage this technology to solve big problems such as global warming. Biogas is made by putting bacteria in a bioreactor so they can digest feedstocks without oxygen. The digestion process takes up to 14 days.
Other more “fancy” applications are some like yeast-produced farnesene to make personal-care products such as vitamin E, patchouli oil, and squalene, which is prized for its attributes as a skin moisturizer and other therapeutic benefits.
Every day an estimated 200 million people drink water poisoned by high levels of arsenic. But no worries! Synbio’s got us covered. Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh are developing a cheap, reliable arsenic test using the natural capabilities of bacteria. It works in the following way:
- Gene A senses arsenic. Gene B allows the bacteria to digest lactose, producing lactic acid
- Synthetic biologists put gene B under the control of gene A, so when arsenic is detected, lactic acid is produced, making water more acid
- That decrease in water’s pH can be easily and cheaply sensed with a pH indicator. If the reading is blue, the water is safe. Yellow means it’s dangerous.
Furthermore, the holy grail of synthetic biology is to create life from scratch. Craig Venter, an expert biotechnologist has gotten pretty close to this goal, when he created the first bacteria which had a computer as a mother.
What he and his team achieved was to figure out which genes weren’t useful for a bacteria to reproduce, breathe, metabolize energy, and overall be alive. He eliminated those genes and put the new ones into an empty bacteria cell.
What you wouldn’t imagine, is that the arsenic-detecting bacteria wasn’t created by “super PhD” researchers, but by undergraduate students competing in an event called iGEM.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to education and competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration.
Going from high school students to postdocs and even people working in community labs, iGEM brings together more than 6k people to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, using synthetic biology.
Just last year, a high school team won the Grand Prize for creating recombinant, colored spider silk with E.coli. Their plan is to take this to the clothing industry.
Anyone can cook!
After all, many think that the definition of synthetic biology isn’t clear yet. Some say it’ll remain as a branch within biotech, while others expect this to be a complete new and revolutionary science.
Asking experts in the field what they think the next 10 years look like for synthetic biology, many of their answers are similar.
Synthetic biology is right now, where the computing was some years ago. Innovations like the Machintosch, arose from people doing coding in their garages. Ideas like Facebook have come to completely revolutionize the way we interact with the world.
Today, you can buy a genetic engineering kit for less than USD $170 and have hands-on biology at home. No prior experience needed, let alone having a Phd. It’s called biohacking!
Already experts like Raymond McCauley expect the 21st century to be full of biotech innovations. But the most exciting part, the part that most people don’t understand is that
The best way to predict the future is to create it
— Abraham Lincoln
So I’ll stop writing, so you can stop reading, and we can both start creating! Thanks for reading :)
Hey! I’m Sofi, a 16-year-old girl who’s extremely passionate about biotech, human longevity, and innovation itself 🦄. I’m learning a lot about exponential technologies to start a company that impacts the world positively 🚀. I love writing articles about scientific innovations to show you the amazing future that awaits us!
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