Updated on 27 September 2012
Despite its shortcomings, this experiment conveys a clear message that one need not rationally design organisms part-by-part. One can straight away aim for the whole genome, as long as one has the technological competency and nearly unlimited funding! Although this is not equal to designing organisms from scratch, it bypasses the enormous issue of biological complexity and is a clever approach to custom-build organisms based on user specs.
Unfortunately, the organism construction protocol is extremely cumbersome and time consuming in its current form. In future, we expect to see mass production of user-defined organisms towards environmental, energy and health applications. For the scientific community to adopt this new route, the emerging technological advancement must lead to cheaper, safer and faster synthesis of organisms. In my opinion, the emerging technology of long DNA synthesis is likely to play a major role in enabling this paradigm shift. In future, the community will see a routine chemical synthesis of whole microbial genomes, eukaryotic chromosomes and finally the eukaryotic cell itself.
The other faster and extremely innovative approach is whole genome cloning. In 2005, Professor Mitsuhiro Itaya's team used high efficiency BGM cloning vehicle to mix Cyanobacteria and B. subtilis genomes to create a new hybrid new species, Cyanobacillus (Itaya and others, 2005). Interestingly, Cyanobaciallus sp. shows some properties of both the organisms. Thus, in theory one can mix natural and synthetic genomes and construct organisms with novel properties.
Due to enormously enhanced capabilities in designing organisms, synthetic biology has raised several ethical, social and security concerns. In future, it may be possible to custom synthesize viruses that have been computationally optimized for high pathogenicity!
To prevent misuse of technology, there is a need to design and implement a global legal framework that works. In addition, the potential routes of technological proliferation need to be closely monitored. The situation can go bad when DNA synthesis companies start selling desktop DNA printers! Once desktop DNA printers populate a routine molecular biology, it will not only render recombinant DNA technology un-necessary but also make it very difficult to keep track of spurious biological innovations.
Before closing the loop, it would be prudent to perform a quick comparison of biology and engineering. Both the disciplines show similarity in terms of robustness, multi-tasking, fault tolerance, show modularity and hierarchy, analog and digital behaviors and run serial and parallel processes. Due to these reasons, one might be tempted to convert biology into an engineering discipline. However, this approach is simply impractical for the simple reason that for biology to become an engineering discipline, we must stop evolution! Currently, genetic circuits created in vitro are amenable to mutations, their long term and stable expression in non-native systems cannot be assured and a controllable construction of pathways and networks is non-trivial. However, in the years to come, we are likely to see enormous progress in the rapid assembly of organisms from off-the-shelf DNA parts.