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How Synthetic Biology Could Save the World and Simultaneously Destroy It

Winner of the University of Gloucestershire Biosciences Essay Competition 2020 and a £1000 cash prize, this short read article was written by sixth-former Matt Gray.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

Winner of the University of Gloucestershire Biosciences Essay Competition 2020 with a £1000 cash prize, this short read article was written by sixth-former Matt Gray.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

Imagine a world where meat is environmentally friendly, where plastic is green and microbes suck all those pesky greenhouse gases out of the sky. I concede that it is a ridiculously far-fetched scenario. Or is it? The relatively new field of synthetic biology has outlandishly claimed that all of this is not just possible, but probable.  

The lines between synthetic biology and other closely related fields such as genetic engineering are truly blurred which means defining synthetic biology is challenging. However, for the purposes of this essay I will use a definition drafted by a consensus of European experts which states that “Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based (or inspired) systems, which display functions that do not exist in nature” (1). Effectively, synthetic biology seeks to design new systems and life processes that provide a valuable function to humans.  

One of the biggest problems facing the world today is food security. By 2050 the UN predicts food production will need to increase 70% from 2013 levels to feed the growing population (2). But with 90% of fish stocks having been used up (3), land degradation and the unsustainable demand for meat (4) how is this possible without devastating ecological impact? Synthetic biology may hold the answer. Fish feed is the biggest cost of the $232 billion dollar fish farming industry and one of the biggest causes of overfishing for small fish such as anchovies which are ground up to make the feed (5). What if you could engineer microbes that would make the fish feed  from greenhouse gases rather than fish. Novonutrients, a Californian company, has used synthetic biology to do exactly that. They have successfully engineered microbes to absorb carbon dioxide and create protein as their product (6). Does synthetic biology also hold the answer to the unsustainable demand for meat (7)? Synthetic biology allowed the now ubiquitous impossible burger to achieve its “meaty” taste by taking the DNA from soy plants and inserting it into modified yeast cells (8). These yeast cells then serve as mini factories producing heme, the magic molecule responsible for the taste. With lab grown eggs (9) and foie-gras (10) already in production synthetic biology is a genuine way to keep “meat” as part of our diets long into the future.  

What about pollution? In 2016 researchers discovered two enzymes that allowed bacteria to feed on PET plastic (11) – most commonly used for plastic water bottles – and since then researchers have been feverishly working to improve their effectiveness. In 2020 researchers at a synthetic biology lab at the University of Plymouth identified that when two separate enzymes PEThase and METhase were combined they could degrade PET 6 times faster than before (12). Currently PET is recycled by heating it to a whopping 270C which – aside from being expensive – releases volatile organic compounds which exacerbate air pollution.  Although enzymes like these are not yet commercially viable in the near future they could provide a cleaner, safer and less energy intensive solution to recycling plastic. But why stop there? Currently plastics are manufactured from crude oil – a substance so environmentally notorious it needs no introduction – but what if we could create them from a different material. Newlight Technologies has created an enzyme which combines methane – the 2nd most abundant greenhouse gas (13) – and air to form a plastic-like biomaterial (14). With plastics made from greenhouse gases and recycled by supercharged enzymes a whole new industry of green materials could form. 

That’s how I believe synthetic biology could save the world by repurposing greenhouse gases, creating green materials and ensuring food security, but how might it destroy it? 

In 2002 researchers created the first ever synthetic virus, based on polio (15) and in 2017 Canadian researchers published a study about how they had used mail order genetic components to synthesise horsepox, one of smallpox’s closest cousins (16). The potential for smallpox to be synthesised and unleashed upon the unvaccinated modern world is horrifyingly real and although organizations have taken action to minimise the risk of bioterrorism, for example the CDC in America retains copies of smallpox vaccines, its potential in the hands of a rogue state is frightening. Synthetic biology’s ethical quandaries don’t end with bioterrorism. Fears of scientists playing god, designer babies and the potential for too much power to fall into far too few hands also loom over the field. 

Yet it is irrefutable that the age of synthetic biology is here and it will affect all of our lives. I therefore believe there has never been a more important time to be a biologist to ensure that the opportunities presented by synthetic biology are used for prosperity and progress rather than pandemics and predatory politics. 

References

1. Synthetic biology: promises and challenges. Serrano, Luis. 1, s.l. : Molecular Systems Biology, 2007, Vol. 3. 

2. World must sustainably produce 70 per cent more food by mid-century – UN report. UN News. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://news.un.org/en/story/2013/12/456912. 

3. Kituyi, Mukhisa. UNCTAD. https://unctad.org/news/90-fish-stocks-are-used-fisheries-subsidies-must-stop. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://unctad.org/news/90-fish-stocks-are-used-fisheries-subsidies-must-stop. 

4. Saving the Planet The Market for Sustainable Meat Alternatives. Joshi, Indira, et al. 2, s.l. : Applied Innovation Review, 2016. 

5. Scottish Fish Farming and Aquaculture Industry. British Sea Fishing. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://britishseafishing.co.uk/fish-farming-and-processing/. 

6. https://www.novonutrients.com/. Inc. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://www.inc.com/magazine/201905/jeff-bercovici/synbio-novonutrients-bioeconomy-sustainable-food-industry-carbon-bioengineering.html. 

7. The Meat Industry is Unsustainable. IDTechEx. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://www.idtechex.com/en/research-article/the-meat-industry-is-unsustainable/20231. 

8. HEME + THE SCIENCE BEHIND IMPOSSIBLE. Impossible Foods. [Online] [Cited: 06 12, 2020.] https://impossiblefoods.com/heme/. 

9. Clara Foods. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://www.clarafoods.com/. 

10. Mission. Gourmey. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] http://gourmey.com/en/#mission. 

11. A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate). Yoshida, Shosuke, et al. 6278, s.l. : Science, 2016, Vol. 351. 

12. Characterization and engineering of a two-enzyme system for plastics depolymerization. s.l. : Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2020. 

13. Importance of Methane. United States Environmental Protection Agency. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://www.epa.gov/gmi/importance-methane. 

14. AIRCARBON. Newlight. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://www.newlight.com/aircarbon. 

15. Active Poliovirus Baked From Scratch. Couzin, Jennifer. 5579, s.l. : Science, 2002, Vol. 297. 

16. How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA . Science. [Online] [Cited: 12 06, 2020.] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/how-canadian-researchers-reconstituted-extinct-poxvirus-100000-using-mail-order-dna. 

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