An introduction to synthetic biology

Ginkgo Bioworks' state-of-the-art synthetic biology lab
Ginkgo Bioworks’ state-of-the-art synthetic biology lab

DNA is the life code, the blueprint if you like, for designing living organisms. Just like in construction, changing the blueprint will result in a different end product. Biotechnology has traditionally used the same technique, tweaking the blueprint.

Insulin, used to treat diabetics, was originally harvested from pigs or cows. It wasn’t an exact science and could result in allergic reactions when given to humans. In the early 1980’s scientists took the part of the blueprint (DNA) for making insulin from a human and inserted it into a bacteria. These genetically modified, easy to grow bacteria pump out human insulin that is simple to harvest and safe to use. This technique of inserting genes from one organism to another is now widespread and we of course benefit with resilient crops, better medicine, improved vaccinations, nicer flowers and of course fish and rabbits that glow in the dark.

Biology has progressed over the past decades, the blueprint for a human with its extensive DNA profile of 3 billion base pairs has been decoded. Biologists no longer rely solely on splicing DNA from one organism into another. Today’s biotechnology companies use state of the art manufacturing and industrial engineering to develop unique custom made organisms.

Take Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, Massachusetts. The company specialises in developing unique, engineered organisms, using synthetic DNA. These organisms produce flavours, fragrances, pesticides, cosmetics and sweeteners for customer including perfume companies, detergent manufacturers, pharmaceuticals and breweries. Ginkgo Bioworks, instead of splicing a piece of DNA from one organism to another, will create the DNA code synthetically in their lab. The company now has numerous organism design contracts with customers including many Fortune 500 companies. Indeed over the past 2 years Ginkgo Bioworks has taken on over $150 million dollars in venture capital.

At the recent opening of their new industrial lab, it wasn’t champagne that was on ice, but beer with a distinct orange flavour. The flavour wasn’t added after or during the brewing process. It came from a yeast engineered with the orange flavour built in. True micro brewing. Synthetic biology is at its very earliest stages. It holds great promise, but comes with ethical dilemmas, best pondered perhaps over a cold glass of orange flavoured beer.

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