Drew Endy uses tools of synthetic biology to construct new genetic material

Dr. Endy points to the development of an antimalarial drug as a successful product of synthetic biology. He also talks about future goals of synthetic biology, such as engineering more nitrogen-fixing capacity into plants.

Drew Endy: Snythetic biology is sort of focused for me on how you make the process of engineering biology easier, quicker, and cheaper, more reliable.

Drew Endy is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University. He spoke with EarthSky about an emerging field of science called synthetic biology. It relies in part, he said, on new biotechnology tools.

Drew Endy: A tool that allows you to, instead of cutting and pasting pieces of DNA – genetic material that already exists – to build new genetic material from scratch. People are constructing cells, and circuits within cells – genetic circuits, not electronic circuits.

Dr. Endy pointed to the development of an antimalarial drug called artemisinin as a successful product of synthetic biology. In this case, the technique was used to construct a new strain of bacteria to produce the drug. He also talked about future goals of synthetic biology, for example engineering more nitrogen-fixing capacity into plants.

Drew Endy: Imagine if you had a grass that could emit light at night so you didn’t need to wire up some little electric light bulbs.

Endy also acknowledged the risks.

Drew Eddy: If I could try and communicate one idea, it’s that because the field is so new, the tools are going to change a lot over time. And that means that we need to learn enough and prepare to have conversations that we just don’t happen once, but conversations that are ongoing conversations.

Dr. Endy answered the question of what synthetic biology is, and whether scientists are actually creating life with it.

Drew Endy: If you go into the dictionary and you just think about what those two words mean – construction or creation – creation implies that you’re a God. You have unlimited power. You have an ability to manipulate the universe and matter that’s unlimited. You don’t have a budget. You’re infinitely powerful. You have a perfect understanding. You’re all-knowing. That’s not who I am. That’s not who we are as people, as human beings. We have a budget, we have a very crude understanding of how the universe works, we have a limited ability to change and manipulate materials.

Endy said he and his colleagues prefer to say they are ‘constructing’ things:

Drew Endy: Now constructing things doesn’t mean that it’s not impressive. And it doesn’t mean that the things that get made don’t help us ask questions or better understand ourselves. So if you could construct an entire living organism from scratch, as others are trying to work on, what we most stand to gain from that, I would argue, is an unbelievably improved understanding of how life works.

Jorge Salazar