By David Niesel and Norbert Herzog
Synthetic biology sounds like an oxymoron. One word means artificial while the other means natural.
Put together, what those two words really mean is a combination of biology and engineering that will allow scientists to harness biological processes for human use.
Imagine genetic engineering and biotechnology on steroids.
In short, synthetic biology aims to manipulate cells or their components to achieve a certain result, such as advancing human health, producing energy, manufacturing products, producing food or protecting the environment.
There are plenty of applications for synthetic biology in many important fields.
Scientists want to create cells with new and unique properties that are programmed to fulfill a directed purpose.
For example, these engineered cells might be programmed to synthesize new biofuels.
One practical example of the promise of synthetic biology is directed at malaria, a disease caused by a single-celled parasite called Plasmodium that has been killing humans throughout our recorded history.
Today, it infects 250 million people worldwide each year and is the No. 1 killer of children under five.
Malaria is currently treated by a group of drugs that are derived from artemisinin, a compound from the sweet wormwood plant, which was used as a natural remedy for centuries in China.
The downside is that this plant must grow for up to 1.5 years before it can be harvested for drug production.
Of course, the normal variables of agriculture — rain, sunlight, soil content, labor — also mean that the supply of sweet wormwood fluctuates.
Combined with the expensive manufacturing process, the result is that not everyone who is infected with malaria can be treated.
Synthetic biology has the power to change that. Recently, the World Health Organization gave pharmaceutical giant Sanofi approval to produce artemisinin using a genetically modified form of a yeast called Saccharomyces cervesiae.
Several genes are inserted into the yeast’s genome to alter its metabolic pathways to produce a precursor to artemisinin. This has turned a simple organism into a “one-cell factory” for a new source of artemisinin.
Now, it will take only three months to produce artemisinin for antimalarial drugs.
The new source also will ensure a steady supply and greatly increase the amount that can be produced at one time.
About 25 tons were produced in 2013, and that number is expected to double next year.
And if that weren’t good enough already, each dose of the yeast-produced artemisinin will cost only 25 cents.
Critics of synthetic biology fear a Frankensteinian world of potentially dangerous biological creations.
In that regard, the U.S. government is drafting guidelines and regulations for this new field.
With proper care and funding, synthetic biology will yield many new advances to improve lives as it reaches it potential in the future.
Professors Norbert Herzog and David Niesel are biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at medicaldiscoverynews.com.