Adventures in Synthetic Biology. Story by Drew Endy and Isadora Deese and the MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group. Art by Chuck Wadey. Originally published in 2005. Available for free, PDF
Reviewed by Carl Zimmer
In the early 1970s, three scientists ran a simple experiment. They cut genes out of the DNA of a frog and inserted them into E. coli. The frog genes functioned in their new home. The microbe was able to make RNA from them, the first step in translating the information in genes into proteins. And when the microbe divided in two, it made new copies of the frog genes along with its own. It was, to some extent, a microbe-frog hybrid.
The experiment was simple only in its concept, though. It had taken the scientists--Herbert Boyer, Stanley Cohen, and John Morrow--years of research to find the tools to do the job, such as enzymes that bacteria use slice up the DNA of invading viruses. And because it had been the first time that anyone had achieved such a feat, it shook the world.
On the one hand, many scientists and pharmaceutical companies saw a huge potential future for gene pasting. Imagine E. coli carrying the gene for human insulin, for example. Instead of harvesting insulin from cow pancreases, it would be possible to brew insulin the same way people brew beer. One company that sprang up in the wake of the frog-microbe experiment, Cetus, promised that by 2000, virtually all diseases would be cured with proteins made through the genetic engineering that Boyer and his colleagues had invented.
On the other hand, critics saw the apocalypse. Some feared that insulin-pumping E. coli would run amok and spread an epidemic of diabetic comas. If the world embraced genetic engineering, the eminent biologist Erwin Chargaff warned, "the future will curse us."
Forty years after Boyer and his colleagues created their frog-microbe hybrid, the extreme predictions at either end of the prophecy spectrum have failed to come true. No diabetic coma epidemic. (E. coli burdened with human insulin genes can't compete with their lean, wild relatives.) Instead, millions of diabetics get a reliable supply of insulin from the microbes. On the other hand, just having a microbial factory doesn't automatically mean you can cure all diseases. Or even many of them. (I write more about how E. coli launched the biotech industry in my book Microcosm.)
Now, however, genetic engineering is morphing into something new. In the late 1990s, a group of engineers and biologists came together to try to manipulate cells the way they might manipulate the circuits in computer. The analogy between computers and cells is far from perfect, because our bodies are the product of evolution rather than a computer factory. Nevertheless, we have genes that switch other genes on and off, and some genes require inputs from several other genes before they make their own proteins. Cells use this genetic circuitry to detect signals, to process information, and to make decisions. The engineers and biologists set out to rewire that circuitry, inserting many different genes in combinations that would produce new behaviors. They called their project synthetic biology.
This is a big deal, but it's tricky to explain why. Drew Endy has made a notable effort to introduce synthetic biology both to his fellow scientists and to the public, and so he did something unusual when he and his colleagues published their new paper today: he published a video in the supplementary material in which Endy describes what they've done and what it means.
And rather than keep the video hidden behind a subscription paywall, Endy posted it on YouTube. And here it is:
If you're not familiar with both transcription factors and Boolean logic, this video may fail to enlighten. Endy seems to be aware of this, because midway through the video, he refers viewers to a comic book that he and his colleagues put together, called Introducing Synthetic Biology.
The comic book first appeared in 2005 in a special issue of Nature in which Endy and a number of other researchers offered overviews of synthetic biology and discussed the ethical issues raised by rewiring life. At the time, Nature posted the comic book online in a Flash version. You can still see it in that form, but I wouldn't recommended it. Eight years later, it feels cramped and tiny. But Endy has posted it online as a free PDF, where it still feels fresh and informative.
Introducing Synthetic Biology embeds lessons about the fundamentals of the field in a comic book story. Its heroes are a grown-up scientist and a boy whose experiments with bacteria she oversees. Artist Chuck Wadey gives the narrative a stylish, quasi-psychedelic feel. The boy eagerly tries to rejigger the bacteria to fill with gas and become floating balloons, and along the way he realizes how hard it is--but also how vast the possibilities are for synthetic biology.
This is a smart, savvy piece of science writing. Endy has long focused much of his outreach at young people. In 2003, he helped found the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, which brought together college kids (and eventually high schoolers) to carry out experiments in synthetic biology and compete for prizes. Rather than just trying to get some old folks in charge of government and private funding to rethink how they support biotechnology research, Endy has for the past decade helped to produce hundreds of new synthetic biologists. They live the story that Introducing Synthetic Biology tells. If you (or your kids, if you've got any) want to learn about the nuts and bolts of synthetic biology, this is an excellent place to start.
It shouldn't be where you finish, though. Introducing Synthetic Biology has an almost nostalgic 1950s feeling of uncritical gee-whiz enthusiasm about synthetic biology. I couldn't help but think about A is For Atom, a 1952 cartoon from General Electric. It's actually a pretty good introduction to subatomic physics and its applications. But it's unquestionably spooky, with weirdly humanized atoms as cartoon characters and a blithe confidence that the power of the atom was firmly in mankind's control. General Electric was hardly an objective judge of the risks and benefits of the atomic age. It made big profits from building nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants (including, it just so happens, the reactors at Fukishima).
Synthetic biology is fraught with ethical questions, too. Who owns the rewired organisms it produces? What happens if they escape into the wild? Will synthetic biology just end up concentrating wealth into large corporations? Will synthetic-biology-driven energy projects end up harming the environment as more land is dedicated to feeding their enormous hunger for sugar?
Drew Endy has not shied away from these issues. He was one of the people who testified before the President's Council on Bioethics when it looked into synthetic biology in 2010. He has argued for open access to an inventory of genetic parts, rather than hiding synthetic biology behind a wall of patents. And he's taken on critics of synthetic biology in public debates, such as this one in 2008.
I will grant that it may be harder to make an engaging comic book about bioethics. But tomorrow's synthetic biologists need both enthusiasm and wisdom.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including Evolution: Making Sense of Life.