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At AAAS, Drew Endy Calls for US Synthetic Biology Initiative

CHICAGO (GenomeWeb News) – Stanford University bioengineering researcher Drew Endy argued at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting on Friday that the US needs a national initiative to support and encourage synthetic biology.

Speaking at a session on synthetic life, Endy highlighted a slew of recent developments in genetic engineering — from bacteria programmed to take photos to synthetic bacterial genomes created in a single step. Even so, Endy and others believe the field is poised to enjoy even greater success, particularly if there is sufficient investment in areas such as appropriate tools, standardization, and DNA construction.

Genetic engineering so far has largely focused on applications such as recombinant drug development, gene therapy, nitrogen-fixing crops, and so on, Endy said. But he emphasized that there are many other potential applications — some of which may not be realized unless genetic engineering gets input from researchers from a variety of different disciplines.

Drawing parallels to the stone age and the technology age, Endy predicted that it will be new tools — not particular applications — that will fuel progress in genetic engineering. For instance, he said, asking what synthetic biology will produce in the future is akin to asking early computer developers about the applications of their technology.

Carrying the computing analogy further, Endy argued, DNA is the "machine language" that drives biological systems. And genetic engineers don't necessarily have to understand this language to build parts, devices, and systems from it, he added, just as systems engineers don't need to know the details of computer language to create applications.

They key then, is standardizing and abstracting the DNA machine language so that genetic engineers don't have to muck around with sequence information. That sort of thinking was the genesis for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Registry of Standard Biological Parts, which catalogues standard, interchangeable, biological parts for building larger systems.

Endy said the registry has been successful so far because it "works just a little bit and we're competing with nothing." For instance, he noted, a growing number of undergraduate student teams have used the registry to come up with and build biologically based systems as part of the annual international genetically engineered machine, or iGEM, competition — which Endy called the "genetic engineering Olympics."

While discussing the future of synthetic biology, Endy pointed to a paper that he and University of Washington computer science and engineering researcher Ed Lazowska recently prepared for DSpace titled "Imperative of Synthetic Biology: A Proposed National Research Initiative."

"Given that our ongoing existence and future happiness, including our economy and security, directly depend on biology, we believe that the United States should invest in, guide, and lead the emerging field of synthetic biology," the duo wrote in a version of the paper published in December 2008, "so that the development of tools that make biology easy to engineer remains overwhelmingly constructive, and their application is clearly focused on our most pressing needs, including energy, healthcare, food, and sustainable manufacturing."

Also presenting during the synthetic life session and a subsequent news conference at AAAS were University of California, Berkeley, biochemical engineer Jay Keasling, who highlighted progress being make towards synthetically producing the anti-malarial compound artemisinin, and Stanford University bioengineering researcher Christina Smolke, who described her group's effort to create processing devices using RNA-based programming.