By Julie Nixon
Last week saw the official launch of Synthorx Inc., a company focused on using synthetic biology to discover and develop new medicines and diagnostics. This launch coincided with research published in Nature by Floyd Romesberg, Synthorx's co-founder and associate professor of The Scripps Research Institute, describing for the first time the in vivo replication of a synthetic DNA base pair. Synthorx has the exclusive rights to this technology from The Scripps Research Institute.
Build your own cell
Synthetic Biology.org describes the field as using “unnatural molecules to mimic natural molecules with the goal of creating artificial life” or using “natural molecules and assembles them into a system that acts unnaturally.” Examples include the creation of a “synthetic cell” where a complete genome of millions of base pairs was assembled, inserted into a cell, and that cell was able to replicate, and the creation of synthetic DNA such as the breakthrough described by Romesberg. Synthetic biology combines the fields of biology and engineering to design and construct systems for useful purposes.
X plus Y equals a breakthrough
In living organisms DNA exists as a pair of molecules held together by the pairing of nucleobases. The four bases , G, T, C and A come together to form two base pairs, G-C and T-A, and this base pairing allows the two strands to entwine as a double helix. Base pairs are used to make genes, which cells use as templates for making proteins. This latest study moves life beyond G, T, C and A by introducing two new bases, X and Y. The new synthetic DNA forms a third base pair, X-Y. When modified bacteria containing X and Y divided they replicated the synthetic code and passed that on to the next generation of bacteria. There is a possibility that scientists could make cells containing the artificial DNA to manufacture proteins not known in nature, leading to a vast range of protein-based drugs.
The Myriad effect
Synthetic biology has received opposition, with issues raised with regard to ethics, biosecurity, biosafety, involvement of stakeholders and intellectual property. With regard to intellectual property, last week’s Nature discussed the debate as to whether synthetic biologists should patent discoveries made or embrace open-source innovation. As mentioned above, engineering meets biology in the field of synthetic biology, with software design and engineering employed to create complex biological systems. Andrew Hessel, a pioneer in synthetic biology, is an advocate of open source software to be freely available for scientists involved in synthetic biology. However in the field of biotechnology companies developing new drugs depend heavily on protecting discoveries through patents and restrictive licensing agreements.
Last year, in a case against the company Myriad Genetics, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “products of nature” such as genes cannot be patented. However synthetic biology creates DNA that does not occur naturally, so in the US at least such synthetic DNA can be patented. Open-source advocates argue that patents hinder innovation as patented discoveries can be prohibitively expensive to access by the research community. I recently reported that there is uncertainty as to the effect the patent granted on CRISPR technology will have on research using this technology.
Linda Kahl, director of the legal programme at the BioBricks Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for biological engineering in the public interest was quoted in Nature as saying “It's not just return on investment… It is also about doing good in the world”. However with the increasing number of patent applications in the field of synthetic biology, this sentiment may be rather naïve.