July 21, 2010

Synthetic Biology, Bioethics and Unicorns, oh my!

Our current vision of reality is slowly but surely being taken over by the world of science fiction.
And I heartily approve.
There have been many recent advances in the fields of bioengineering. There are obviously the pest and disease resistant crops that most of us now eat (a matter of transplanting genes mostly) as well as various thoughts on RNA and DNA therapy for people with genetic conditions. In addition, for a fee, we can map our genome and determine what of the myriad of diseases we may be affected with in the future, as well as discovering our maternal line, people we never knew we were related to. On the whole, we've made massive movements towards sci-fi use of biochemistry.

But most amazingly. We've managed to edit the genetic code, and are able to make biological proteins not seen before. Recently scientists in Cambridge, specifically a one Jason Chin has managed to creature a codon that can code using four nucleotide bases.

To explain, a three base codon it part of DNA and RNA that encodes for all proteins, enzymes and biological materials that are made in the body. A codon is, simply, the blueprints for designing every part of a living thing, humans, plants, animals, everything. To change the number of nucleotide bases that are read by the codon changes how business is done, it's like switching from our Phoenician alphabet with 26 characters to an Asian character system with hundreds. To do this they had to make new ribosomes which they selectively inserted into strains of E.Coli.
What this means is that it opens up a whole new area in terms of amino acids, proteins and enzymes, which in turn opens up a whole new field entirely. That of synthetic biology.

Speaking of which...

Across the pond that very instance has taken place. By engineering a strain of DNA they were able to insert it into a bacterium, which then proceeded to replicate, forming an entirely new strain of bacteria, which successfully went through cell replication. Forming the first entirely engineered form of life that has never been seen on this planet before.

The consequences of this find are astronomical. Instead of genetically modifying a creature, we are able to fully create a life form from the ground up (albeit inefficient and not particularly cheap...nor particularly viable on large scales). Like the previous discovery this opens up the doors for new sorts of medicine and biotechnology (and possibly food)

But as with all discoveries, it also opens up the door for ethical and moral quandaries. And I'm pleased to say that the U.S. court's at least are taking this seriously. There was an idea that specific genes created by companies could be patented, but the issue becomes what happens when someone possesses the gene? Who's property is it? Worse yet, if a single company owns the patent on a cancer gene, that bottle necks the companies able to study and cure said cancer... Luckily such a ruling is meeting legal action

In addition to this there is the fear that a synthetic organism, if released into the wild would then run amok with the native ecosystem. Being that it a completely nonnative being it is possible that the immune systems of living creatures would not be able to handle it, causing an epidemic almost overnight. Then of course there's the fear that someone would do this on purpose as an act of biological terrorism. AS before, there are growing watchdog agencies who are beginning to try and monitor just that sort of thing.

So as we see, biology is making great stride and becoming a greater behemoth in how it will affect our daily lives, not that it wasn't already. I'm personally excited about the possibilities, and the thought that science fiction is quickly becoming science fact

I didn't forget unicorns.... As it turns out in Italy there was found a single horned deer, which a lot of people seem to believe may have been the beginning of the original unicorn myth.

Personally I want to genetically engineer a unicorn... but, you know, gotta wait for progress and all that

Thanks for reading,


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