Thirty years ago, the future lay in programming computers. Today, it’s programming cells according to Synthetic Biologists who met at Berkeley Keynote speaker Juan Enriquez, a self-described “curiosity expert” and co-founder of the company Synthetic Genomics, compared the digital revolution spawned by thinking of information as a string of ones and zeros to the coming synthetic biology revolution, premised on thinking about life as a mix of interchangeable parts – genes and gene networks – that can be learned and manipulated like any language. The panels brought together a dozen of synthetic biology’s pioneers from academia and industry, in addition to ethicists focused on the societal impact of the technology.
UC Berkeley chemical engineer Jay Keasling has been a key player in developing the field of synthetic biology over the last decade. Enriquez introduced Keasling as someone “who in his spare time goes out and tries to build stuff that will cure malaria, and biofuels and the next generation of clean tech, all while mentoring students at this university and at the national labs and creating whole new fields of science.”
Keasling, director of SynBERC, a UC Berkeley-led multi-institution collaboration that is laying the foundations for the field, expressed excitement about the newest development: the release next month by the pharmaceutical company sanofi aventis of a synthetic version of artemsinin, “the world’s best antimalarial drug,” he said. Sparked by discoveries in Keasling’s lab more than a decade ago, the drug is produced by engineered yeast and will be the first product from synthetic biology to reach the market.
“There are roughly 300 to 500 million cases of malaria each year,” he said. “Sanofi will initially produce about 100 million treatments, which will cover one-third to one-quarter of the need.”
As CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute, Keasling is now focused on engineering microbes to turn “a billion tons of biomass that go unutilized in the U.S. on an annual basis … into fuel, producing roughly a third of the need in the U.S.”
But other advances are on the horizon, he said, such as engineering new materials and engineering “green” replacements for all the products now made from petroleum. “Some of these have the potential to significantly reduce our carbon footprint, by say, 80 percent,” he said.
Ultimately, she said, the field could have a revolutionary impact on agriculture similar to the green revolution sparked by the development of chemical fertilizers.
But the implications of being able to engineer cells go deeper, according to Enriquez.
“This isn’t just about economic growth, this is also about where we are going as a human species,” he said. Humans will no longer merely adapt to or adopt the environment, but “begin to understand how life is written, how life is coded, how life is copied, and how you can rewrite life.”