Hope Shand, Jim Thomas and Kathy Jo Wetter
1st May, 2007
Scientists are on the brink of creating the world’s first artificial life form – a living organism never before found in nature. They promise solutions to everything from malaria to climate change. Salvation? Or a step too far?
Transgenics, the kind of engineering you find in genetically modified crops, is suddenly so last-century. As recombinant DNAsplicing techniques pass the 30 year mark, researchers are moving at breakneck pace to the next frontier in the manipulation of life: building it from scratch. It's called synthetic biology, and it's poised to revolutionise our life sciences.
Under the paradigm of transgenics, genetic engineering was a cut-and-paste affair. Biotechnologists manually shuffled pieces of DNA - the self-assembling molecule that instructs living organisms how to carry out every biological process - between existing species. Over much of the past 20 years, genetic technology has focused on deciphering DNA code - the sequence of base pairs that make up DNA's double helix - in order to identify genes and understand their role in plant and animal life. As a result of this race to read and map genomes, it is now possible to decode, or "sequence" tens of thousands of base pairs per minute, and do it relatively cheaply.
Synthetic biology represents a seismic shift in this landscape. Attention is being switched from reading to writing genetic code, with synthetic biologists beginning to...
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