Synthetic biology is an incredibly wide-reaching field with enormous possibilities. And while I’m impressed with news articles reporting synthetic algae which produce biofuels and synthetic semiconductors; I’m left wondering how synthetic biology will improve human health. This is a difficult question, both biologically and morally. Is it morally acceptable to change our genes to improve our health, and if so is it even possible? Researchers Dominique Aubel and Martin Fussenegger envision a world where the small molecules in pharmaceutical medications will be replaced by a variety of synthetic alternatives.
In one technique called advanced heterologous mammalian transcription control systems, bacterial genes would be inserted into our human cells. These specially designed genes react to a variety of molecules like vitamins, amino acids, or even strawberry flavoring (2-phenyl ethyl butyrate). This method would make it easier to create changes in your heart, or liver, or even your brain; which can be incredibly difficult for pharmaceutical drugs.
But why ingest any molecule every day? Wouldn’t it be easier to just take a pill once and let your body (or synthetic biology) do the rest? Another method known as an epigenetic toggle switch allows a person to take a pill once and their synthetic gene circuit will be turned ON. This means that the cells in your body will produce the medication without any effort on your end. By simply taking a different pill the circuit will be turned OFF, and your cells will stop producing that medication. This process could effectively put an end to the question “did you remember to take your birth control today?”
Aubel, D., Fussenegger, M. (2010). Mammalian synthetic biology – from tools to therapies. Bioessays, 32, 332-345.