2015 Synthetic Biology Highlights

Top ten synthetic biology accomplishments.

1. Leukemia patient in remission after treatment with SynBio immune cells

One-year-old Layla’s life was saved after cutting-edge gene-editing technology was used to successfully treat her leukemia when all other treatments had failed. After destroying her own cancerous lymphocytes Layla was injected with donor T-cells modified using a synthetic DNA-cutting enzyme ‘TALEN’. This prevented the T-cells from being rejected, and allowed them to avoid destruction by the cancer drugs. Within weeks of treatment, Layla’s condition had improved, and after a bone marrow transplant she was declared cancer-free.

2. Synthetic biology creates ‘bipointilism’ – living color paintings

Genetic modification of yeast is almost as old as synthetic biology itself. While GM yeast used in ‘bipointalism’ is not useful for anything but a proof-of-concept (and this proof-of-concept isn’t new by a long stretch), the novelty comes in the use of modified yeast as an art form. Art and design can encourage thoughtfulness and debate around such a subject in no way science can, and the union of these two fields could help bring a better, positive understanding of genetic modification and synthetic biology in its correct, safe use.

3. Nobel prize for artemisinin awarded to Tu Youyou

43 years after her discovery of the anti-malaria drug artemisinin, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine for her involvement in saving millions of lives across the world. Youyou discovered the life-saving drug after looking to traditional Chinese remedies, and tested it on herself to prove it was safe for human treatment. Known for her modesty, the 84 year-old has said “I did not go into medicine to make headlines” and “I am too old to bear this award”, despite how much she clearly deserves it. Adding the SynBio angle, a research team led by Dr. Jay Keasling has expanded production of artemisinin by using engineered yeast which produce the drug (read more here). Artemisinin is now commercially made semi-synthetically by the company Sanofi.

4. Mosquitos genetically engineered to wipe out dengue fever

Every year, hundreds of millions of people are infected with Dengue fever, resulting in over 25,000 annual casualties. With no cure and no vaccine, control of this disease is now focused on the insects responsible for its transmission – mosquitos. Oxitec Ltd. is at the forefront of this research; their genetically engineered sterile male mosquitoes have reduced trial populations by 90%, and it is hoped that in the future, millions of lives could be saved by decimating mosquito populations, preventing disease epidemics before they even start. Research suggests that dramatic reduction of mosquito populations will have little impact on their respective ecosystems.

5. Ginkgo and Twist sign biggest deal in synbio history

In the biggest deal of its kind, Ginkgo Bioworks and Twist Bioscience, both pioneers in their respective fields, set up a partnership to fulfill an order of 100 million bases of synthetic DNA. This partnership is set to accelerate the field of synthetic biology, and as described by Jason Kelly, the founder of Ginkgo, begin the “revolution in the design of microorganisms”.

6. The Human Gene Editing Initiative International Summit brings gene editing ethics to the forefront

A Chinese lab published the first use of CRISPR to edit a human germline—it was followed with uproar, and led to a refreshed mindfulness around the ethics surrounding human genome editing. This furor led to an international summit in Washington DC where over 400 globe spanning experts were invited. The organizers’ official report backed the use of CRISPR in potentially life-changing gene therapies, but renounced its use for germline editing until ‘the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved.’

7. iGEM 2015: the biggest synthetic biology competition yet

In the largest synthetic biology competition ever, iGEM 2015 saw over 2,700 people attend the annual Giant Jamboree in Boston. iGEM’s feel is that of a hive mind—get thousands of young researchers simultaneously researching novel, unique and innovative projects, and synthetic biology will be rapidly advanced while the next generation of researchers will be inspired. Just a few amazing projects this year included: a comprehensive analysis of the effects of transcriptional noise on synthetic biology, an algorithm to design aptabodies (a kind of synthetic ribozyme) completely computationally, a chip that can screen hundreds of diseases simultaneously, a carbon nanotube bullet for transformation of thick walled cells, and a water contamination tester that only requires a paper strip, a plastic filter and a smart phone camera.

8. Alternative CRISPR system discovered

CRISPR has been named “most innovative discovery” and “top scientific advancement” by a number of organizations over the past few years, and four new CRISPR associated proteins have been discovered recently. Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute discovered these after searching through sequence databases for similar proteins to CRISPR. One candidate, Cpf1, has a number of benefits over its Cas9 counterpart, and will hopefully allow for more accurate genome editing in the near future.

9. Lego invests millions to move from oil plastic to bio-plastic

Lego bricks are fun to play with, excruciating to stand on, and central to many childhoods. They’ve remained the same since they were first introduced in 1949. But in 2015, the company announced a large change in their production—by 2030 the colorful bricks will be made from sustainable materials. While this won’t change their physical appearance, converting the 600 billion plastic Lego parts produced this year alone to bioplastics will have a radical impact on the environmental damage waste plastic can cause. While far on the horizon, research from Lego’s soon-to-be built “Sustainability Center” will include synthetic biology-based bio plastics.

10. Data stored as DNA

There are two kinds of data storage—short term (computational, electronic) and long term (physical). Physically stored data is currently kept on tapes, and it is only safe for a while—every 10 years or so someone has to copy all of it to a new tape. But there is new tech on the horizon. Microsoft has announced plans to store long-term data as DNA, which does not degrade for centuries. Thanks to the storage capacity of DNA, all the data in the world could be stored in a volume of less than 9 liters.

SOURCE – Twist Bioscience blog,NY Times, Nature

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