Synthetic Biology: The Next Step in Bioengineering

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From Humanitarian-FOSS Project Development Site

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Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology is a new area of research in biology that combines science and engineering in order to design and build new biological functions and systems. The ultimate goal of Synthetic Biology is to be able to design and build engineered biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and maintain and enhance human health and our environment.

Synthetic Biology has many potential benefits for the human race but raises many new questions for bioethics, biosecurity, biosafety, and intellectual property. The study of Synthetic Biology has the potential to create more efficient ways to produce cures for many human diseases; however, it is also possible for synthesis experimentation to result in the redesign of harmful diseases.

Open Source Licensing?

Drew Endy, Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT, is one of the earliest promoters of open source biology. Endy helped start the BioBricks Foundation, a non-profit organization that will work to support open-source biology. He is also a co-founder of Codon Devices, a biotechnology startup company that is aiming to commercialize DNA synthesis. Endy is working to apply the understanding derived from the modeling of natural biological systems to create a technical foundation and infrastructure that supports the engineering of many-component synthetic biological systems. Through the Biobricks Foundation, Endy aims to adapt and integrate existing software, as well as develop new software, in order to ultimately create an integrated environment for designing biological systems.

BioBrick enables synthetic biologists and biological engineers to program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer. The development of open source technology enables scientists to access public DNA sequence information free of charge through websites such as MIT’s Registry of Biological Parts. The ability for scientists to collaborate without the typical licensing barriers through open source software has had tremendous benefits in the Synthetic Biology field. Any individual or organization is welcome to design, improve, and contribute BioBrick™ standard biological parts to the Registry. Led by Drew Endy, over 600 students and instructors at more than 60 universities around the world are making, sharing, and using BioBrick standard biological parts as part of the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. [1]

Open source licensing will has so far been determined to be the most time and cost effective method of building new biological functions and systems. In 2002 researchers at SUNY Stony Brook succeeded in synthesizing the 7741 base poliovirus genome from its published sequence, producing the first synthetic organism. This took about two years of painstaking work.[2] In 2003 the 5386 bp genome of the bacteriophage Phi X 174 was assembled in about two weeks with the aid of open source software.[3] The potential for open sourcing genome synthesis to lead to many new discoveries cannot be understated. The most influential arguments against open source licensing will most likely come form groups concerned over the societal and ethical implications of allowing such knowledge to circulate in unmonitored public domains.

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