Synthetic biology

Strange brew: opiates from yeast

A recent series of papers have constructed a biochemical pathway that allows yeast to produce opiates. It is not quite a sugar-to-heroin home brew yet, but putting together the pieces looks fairly doable in the very near term. I think I called the news almost exactly five years ago on this blog.

People, including the involved researchers, are concerned and think regulation is needed. It is an interesting case of dual-use biotechnology. While making opiates may be somewhat less frightening than making pathogens, it is still a problematic use of biotechnology: millions of people are addicted, and making it easier for them to get access would worsen the problem. Or would it?

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Trouble Brewing? The Ethical Significance of Synthetic Yeast

Back in 2010, I blogged about Craig Venter’s creation of the first synthetic organism, Synthia, a bacteria.

Now, in 2014, the next step has been made by a team at John Hopkins University, the use of synthetic biology in yeast, which, whilst still a simple organism, has a similar cell structure to humans (and other more complex organisms): a nuclei, chromosomes and organelles. The engineered yeast has been reproduced to over 100 generations, passing on its new DNA.

The pace is breathtaking. Moore’s law describes a phenomenon in computing, where computer capacity (so far) doubles every two years. Kurzweil uses Moore’s law to predict the ‘singularity’: a state where humans no longer control, or even comprehend, the progress that technology continues to make.

It’s difficult to measure scientific progress in the same way as computer power, but it’s clear that leaps in progress are now measured in years, not decades. Yet still we wait until technology is upon us before we act.

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How not to save the world

By Charles Foster

Y chromosomes are on the way out, thinks Aarathi Prasad, a geneticist from Imperial College, London: they’re degenerating. If they go, then so do humans – unless an alternative method of reproduction can be devised. It can, says Prasad. In fact the basic technology is already here, and is bound to get better. In 2004 a mouse was conceived using synthetic sperm made by modifying ova. Technological virgin birth (I’ll call it TVB) might be the salvation of the human race.

This is all very interesting. But Prasad isn’t content merely to describe the science. She seems to think that we ought to drop all our taboos against the idea. ‘By all reasonable estimates, in the near future we will conquer the tyranny of the womb. The question remains if we can also conquer the tyranny of human prejudice….’

It’s not clear from this whether she is advising us to conquer our tyrannous prejudice on simply practical grounds –  (because, if we don’t overcome our squeamishness, we won’t develop or embrace the technology, so dooming humanity) or whether she thinks that there is something philosophically wrong with a distaste for TVB. I suspect the latter.

If this suspicion is right, why might she (or anyone else) think that? Continue reading

Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages

By Brian Earp

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Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages

Valentine’s day has passed, and along with it the usual rush of articles on “the neuroscience of love” – such as this one from Parade magazine. The penner of this particular piece, Judith Newman, sums up the relevant research like this:

It turns out that love truly is a chemical reaction. Researchers using MRIs to look at the brain activity of the smitten have found that an interplay of hormones and neurotransmitters create the state we call love.

My humble reckoning is that there’s more to “the state we call love” than hormones and neurotransmitters, but it’s true that brain chemistry is heavily involved in shaping our experience of amour. In fact, we’re beginning to understand quite a bit about the cerebral circuitry involved in love, lust, and human attachment—so much so that a couple of Oxford philosophers have been inspired to suggest something pretty radical.

They think that it’s time we shifted from merely describing this circuitry, and actually intervened in it directly—by altering our brains pharmacologically, through the use of what they call “love drugs.”

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Stem Cell Trial for Stroke: Is It Cannabilizing Human Beings?

By Julian Savulescu

Reneuron has today announced the first transfer of stem cells in the UK to treat stroke. This follows quickly from Geron’s recent trial in spinal cord injury.

This is a historic moment which may be viewed in the same way as the first attempts to use antibiotics. Stem cells offer the door to entirely new form of medical treatment called regenerative medicine. When cells (the building blocks) or tissues of the body are damaged, they are generally not replaced. The dead tissue is replaced by scar that holds the rest of the organ together. So when a person has a stroke (or heart attack) a blood vessel to an area of brain is typically blocked and that area of the brain dies, being replaced by a scar that is functionless. Stem cell therapy offers the hope of replacing that dead or damaged tissue and cells with functioning new cells, in this case nerve cells. This trial is the very first stage to see if the transfer can be done safely.

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Ethics commentary – Fraught with peril

One issue emerging from the recent media circus over Craig Venter’s apparent creation of a synthetic life form is the potential danger … of ethics commentary itself.

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Creating Headlines, Artificial Life, Ethical Concerns, and Ontological Perplexity

Synthetic biology has been catapulted into the
public sphere after an article
in Science
 reported that
Craig Venter and his collaborators had managed to make a synthetic cell by
inserting a fabricated genome into a bacterium. The achievement made headlines
and was widely presented as a case of creating artificial life. Already there
has been debate about what impact it may be expected to have on future
biotechnological research and about what ethical concerns arise in relation to
synthetic biology. Unsurprisingly a third issue has been whether the
scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have really created artificial

With regard to the latter question the debate
has not focused on whether the synthetic cell is really alive, but whether it
is properly artificial. In an interview
with the BBC
Prize-winning biologist Paul
 points out that not just the genome but the entire cell
would have to be synthesized for it to be properly artificial. What Venter
has produced is the first living cell which is entirely controlled by
synthesized DNA, not artificial life. 

George Church, geneticist at Harvard Medical
School, doesn’t think that Venter has really created new life either. Commenting
in Nature,
Church says that the bacterium made by Venter “is not changed from the wild
state in any fundamental sense. Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the
same as understanding the language.” 

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Is “playing God” just a meaningless phrase?

In a
recent piece for
magazine, Philip Ball denounces the “playing God” objection, often made
against some proposed uses of biotechnology, as a “meaningless, dangerous
cliché”. More specifically, Ball mentions the objection in relation to Craig
Venter’s creation – already discussed on this blog – of the first microorganism
with a wholly synthetic genome. Though many people from the press have raised
the “playing God” issue in their coverage of Venter’s achievement, “no one”,
Ball writes, “seems in the least concerned to enquire what this phrase means or
why it is being used”. 

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Today we lost the drug war

What does synthetic biology mean? Quinn Norton argues it means the end of the drug war: synthetic biology might be able to do the wonderful things (as well as the dangerous things) envisioned by Venter and others, but it definitely can produce drugs. It is also much easier to produce chemicals than fix the environment or make bioweapons. As Quinn notes:

"It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this
project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work
to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug
addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but
a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will
finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what
it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of
lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their
success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead
of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and
horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what
this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it."

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Synthetic life special edition

Blogs, papers and other resources relating to news of first synthetic life form

Updated 27/05/10

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