Synthetic Biology: Life’s Extraordinary New Worlds
Milton Muldrow Jr. is the Director of Natural Sciences at Wilmington University. He is also an associate director of the NASA Delaware Space Grant Consortium, where he has received numerous grant awards to advance his research as well as that of students. He earned his PhD in Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University. He worked at the National Science Foundation, and his research includes the public policy, conservation, and possible genetic engineering of coral reefs. He was named to Delaware Business Times’ top 40 under 40 list, has delivered TEDx talks, and owns a biotech and education business called Phantom Ecology.
01: SynBio Uses Life to Solve Problems
Delve into the amazing world of synbio—synthetic biology—which uses the tools of molecular biology to manipulate life in a host of ways. Survey the wide range of current uses and the field’s almost limitless prospects for improving health, the economy, and the environment. Also consider synbio’s social, ethical, and political implications, with examples involving human embryonic engineering.
02: Reading DNA: SynBio’s First Tool
Synthetic biology starts with reading DNA—sequencing the molecule that codes genetic information. How is it done? Trace the rapidly evolving technology of DNA sequencing, which required 13 years and $3.5 billion to decode the entire human genome in the 1990s and early 2000s. Compare this effort with new methods capable of the same feat in a matter of hours at very little cost.
03: Writing DNA: Printing Synthetic Genes
Now probe the technologies that can literally write DNA, assembling the pieces of life through “bottom-up” biology. Also called artificial DNA synthesis, this process allows genes to be tailor-made for tasks such as programming bacteria to produce insulin. First, inspect nature’s approach to building DNA. Then, examine traditional cloning methods along with the advanced techniques of synbio.
04: Editing DNA: CRISPR Supercharges SynBio
One of the most celebrated tools of synthetic biology goes by the name Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR. Explore the basic biology of CRISPR, which, together with an associated enzyme called Cas9, can target and alter specific sequences of DNA. Heralding a revolution in medicine and other fields, CRISPR borders on the miraculous, but it is also ethically fraught.
05: DNA Computers: DNA to Store and Process Data
Computer users face frequent updates that make older models obsolete and eventually unusable. The same goes for data storage, which degrades after a few years. By contrast, computers using DNA as the storage and processing medium could, in theory, offer a stable, super-compact system that would last for millions of years! Delve into this exciting prospect, highlighting progress and problems.
06: Directed Evolution: Let Nature Drive Discovery
Nature knows a lot more about evolution than humans do, so why not let nature do the work in a greatly sped-up search for new biological molecules? That is the mission of directed evolution. Learn how scientists set a goal, design an experiment, and then steer a living process through multiple iterations. The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three researchers for their work in this endeavor.
07: Metabolic Engineering: Getting More Product
Find out how synthetic biology came to the rescue in meeting the high demand for an antimalarial drug called artemisinin. The product of an Asian plant, artemisinin became the goal of an elaborate project in metabolic engineering—reconfiguring the metabolic pathways in ordinary cells to produce a molecule at industrial scale. Examine other cases in this increasingly routine technology.
08: The Overlapping Revolutions of SynBio and AI
A branch of artificial intelligence (AI) called machine learning can enhance the power of synthetic biology in ways scientists never dreamed possible. For example, AI has solved the challenge of protein folding, predicting the complex 3D structure of proteins in minutes when it formerly took years. Explore how this feat is achieved, and survey other applications in the marriage of AI and synbio.
09: SynBio Foods, Wearables, and Implantables
Synthetic biology can touch anything that can be grown, raised, or produced with microorganisms. This lecture covers the revolution in food and materials, highlighting new ways to fix nitrogen in the soil, culture meat nearly identical to the real thing, and weave fabrics stronger than steel but as soft as silk. The results are more environmentally friendly than products made the traditional way.
10: Regenerative Medicine for a Better Life
Turn to the uses of synthetic biology in regenerative medicine—the restoration of human function impaired by disease or congenital conditions. Start by reviewing the impressive advances in medicine in the 20th century. Then investigate the change brought by synbio, with radical new treatments to repair hearing and vision, address aging and longevity, and transplant organs and tissues.
11: SynBio Therapies against Cancer
Study the convergence of several techniques already presented in the course with the goal of defeating cancer—treatments that are having remarkable success. Focus on CAR-T therapy, which stands for Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell therapy, designed to supercharge a patient’s immune system T cells to target tumors. Also, look at the use of synthetic viruses and bacteria to attack cancer cells.
12: Synthetic Virology and Faster Vaccines
Continue your study of viruses from the previous lecture by examining their broad role in human evolution, as well as disease. Focus on COVID-19 and HIV, and the challenges posed by each for synthetic biology. Cover the rapid response to COVID-19 by vaccine researchers, who scrambled to synthetize the virus using synbio techniques, paving the way for an assortment of vaccines.
13: SynBio Is Also a World of New Risks
Survey the risks of synbio, which in theory makes it possible to download the code for smallpox, Ebola, or other deadly viruses, and reengineer them to spark a pandemic. Malevolent experts could even create entirely new viruses, tailored to wipe out key life-forms. While still difficult to pull off, such dire plots will only get easier with time. Evaluate the safeguards that society can take.
14: SynBio for Eco-fuels and Pest Elimination
Synbio can play a significant role in the fight to save Earth from continued degradation. See how metabolic engineering holds promise for lowering carbon dioxide output via the use of biofuels. Also, a genetic engineering mechanism called gene drives can eradicate invasive species and disease-carrying pests. Finally, synthetic biology can even rescue endangered ecosystems such as coral reefs.
15: De-extinction and Rescuing the Endangered
Given our growing ability to build organisms using genetic blueprints, is true extinction a thing of the past? Probably not. On the other hand, synthetic biology is being used in research to create hybrid versions of the wooly mammoth, passenger pigeon, American chestnut, and other extinct species. Focusing on the passenger pigeon, review the steps needed to resurrect a vanished life-form.
16: SynBio for Survival in Outer Space?
The technology exists to send humans to Mars, however, keeping them alive during the multi-year roundtrip is another matter. Dig into the role that synthetic biology can play in this ultimate exploit. From the bone loss inherent in long-term weightlessness to the infertility of the Martian soil and lack of oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere, synbio can help turn a dream of science fiction into reality.
17: Xenobiology: Going beyond DNA
Continuing the idea of science fiction dreams becoming reality thanks to synbio, explore the prospect of a parallel biology that exists next to, but not compatible with, existing creatures on Earth. These would literally be alien life-forms, made from a different genetic architecture and presumably posing no danger to us. Evaluate current research on this mind-boggling idea and the reasons to pursue it.
18: Quantum Biology and the Future of SynBio
Studies of biological processes such as the workings of enzymes, the sense of smell, the mystery of bird migration, and the astonishing efficiency of photosynthesis, give good reason to think that exotic quantum phenomena are involved. Quantum mechanics may, therefore, offer exciting new ways to manipulate life’s chemistry for our benefit. Could this be the future of synthetic biology? Stay tuned.