Two rather contrasting videos on synthetic biology this month. In the first videocast, released by TED, Craig Venter exposes his grand vision of synthetic genomics. He insists on the notion of ‘combinatorial genomics’, that will combine the power of large scale DNA synthesis (‘robots that can make a million chromosomes a day’) with a database of 20 million genes, ‘the design components of the future’. This approach, a pragmatic mixture of rational function-oriented design and empirical large-scale selection, is envisioned to prepare a modern ‘Cambrian explosion’ of new synthetic species. It is good to see Craig Venter laughing when announcing casually the ‘modest goal of replacing the entire petro-chemical industry’. In any case, Craig Venter appears to be more concerned that the technology may not develop sufficiently rapidly to match the urgency and scale of the major ecological and medical challenges faced by our planet than by potential threats represented by harmful biohacking and bioterror.
<img style=“float:right” alt=“webcast of the NSABB Meeting, Day 1” src=“http://blog-msb.embo.org/blog/img/thumb080313b.jpg” " width=“200” />The second video, admittedly less entertaining, is a recording of the recent deliberations of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). In his presentation entitled ‘Assessing Biosecurity Concerns Related to Synthetic Biology’, David Relman presents some preliminary findings and recommendations of the Working Group on Synthetic Genomics (jump to 1hr:34min:37sec). It is interesting to see that no consensus definition of synthetic biology exists among the various practitioners of the field, who all use different blends of the typical bottom-up engineering approach assembling circuits from standard components and top-down strategy, based on the modifications of existing genomes. Beyond the lack of definition, the current ability to predict biological functions from sequence (eg virulence) remains very limited complicating the possibility of realistic risk assessment. Finally, the development of synthetic biology can be seen as an extension of the success of ‘kit-based’ molecular biology, which facilitates access of these technologies to groups outside the traditional Life Sciences communities and institutions, making the mission of oversight, outreach and eduction more challenging. David Relman also clearly emphasizes the importance of not discouraging the enthusiasm directed towards potentially beneficial research and applications by overzealous oversight and regulations.
The intersection between the two talks above was perhaps made when the question of virulence was raised (jump to 1hr:59min:35sec). The fraction of pathogenic agents is very small compared to the number of existing species, a point also made by Craig Venter, and the rate of appearance of new pathogens is low. The idea was then raised as whether it would be possible to roughly estimate the risk of creating synthetic pathogens by calculating the likelihood that the amount of natural recombination responsible for the emergence of new pathogens ‘in the wild’ could be matched by an equivalent amount of experimental recombination in the laboratory. In other words, is there any way to estimate the probability that new forms of virulence could emerge from the announced synthetic ‘Cambrian explosion’?