Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Re-implementing life

This is incredibly cool. Tom Knight, Drew Endy and others at MIT are working on Synthetic Biology:"specifying every bit of DNA that goes into an organism to determine its form and function in a controlled, predictable way, like etching a microprocessor or building a bridge."

I kind of like the idea of an engineering approach to Biology: while future applications might include things like the mass production of rare drugs or mineral extraction, students at MIT this year are going to focus on building a simple counter. In true engineering style, Endy and Knight came up with Biobricks, a set of standard building blocks (a library of parts, if you will) with a consistent interface. Instead of voltage or current, they are using the rate at which RNA polymerase (which transcribes DNA) moves along the component.

Of course there are ethical issues that will have to be resolved. Eventually, techniques similar to the ones used here may be used to modify the genomes of plants and animals. On the plus side, complete synthesis of genomes (instead of modifications to existing genomes) could allow us to create organisms fundamentally different from any known today, minimizing the risk that they could interact with the environment in undesirable ways. In any event, the fact that science is capable of such things is profoundly exciting.

Via Slashdot.

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