The first biological design-build facility in the world announced that it will soon be able to synthesize chemicals, fuels and new drugs by manipulating the elements necessary to make microbes. Initiated by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the facility’s product—standardized biological parts made from genetic material—will be made available to both academic and commercial users, shortening development time and lowering research costs in the process.
In its first human practices draft-for-comment report, The BioFab: International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology (BIOFAB) asked the core question of “what is a part?” in biology. The report explores the complexity, boundaries and evolution of biological engineering, and seeks to determine what standardization might mean for the industry.
One of BioFab’s projects—and they all seem quite ambitious—aims to build thousands of biological parts needed to control genetic expression in a select number of organisms. This collection—known as “C. dog.”—will make it possible to manipulate DNA/RNA/Protein synthesis in E. coli (a bacterium) and S. cerevisiae (a budding yeast). The product, to be used to aid researchers, will be released under the terms of a legal framework that enables the free exchange and use of standard biological parts.
Founded at the end of 2009 by bioengineering assistant professor Drew Endy and UC Berkeley’s Adam Arkin, The professionally staffed public-benefit facility represents “the first significant focused investment in the development of open technology platforms underlying and supporting the next generation of biotechnology” (BioFab.org). And with generous funding from the NSF and other prominent organizations, the operation will eventually be able to shell out tens of thousands of standard biological parts each year. While such a program reeks of ethical concerns, head of BioFab’s human practices Gaymon Bennett promises that ethical issues, including safety and security, will be addressed by creating resources that will help researchers make tough decisions. The effort will also create a new legal framework in support of its burgeoning technologies.
Synthesizing biological parts from genes may have far-reaching ethical implications, but we can’t say it’s altogether a new idea. Designer babies have long been a part of public debate, and recent advancements like MIT’s registry of standard biological parts have paved the way for initiatives like BioFab. But there’s a big difference between making biological parts and figuring out how those parts will work together.
Creating functioning interchangeable biological parts is at the heart of BioFab’s mission. Taking modern synthetic biology’s mantra that a system is an integrated set of components one step further, BioFab will attempt to define, in context, what a component is, building on the assumption that standardized ‘parts’ don’t yet exist, and that such parts are made, not discovered.
It was clear from early on in biology’s synthetic saga that DNA’s unpredictable methods of assembly would make standardization a challenge, but several years into the new millennium a proposal was made as to how restriction enzymes could isolate DNA “BioBricks” that could effectively “mix and match” with one another using complimentary strands of overhanging base pairs. While this provided a solution to putting engineered DNA components together, it couldn’t solve how to get them to work together in predictable ways. It turns out that sans context, standardized biological parts are little more than words of an indecipherable language.
Quantifying and categorizing genetic structures—both upon which genome sequencing is based—are not in themselves new goals. The present conundrum lies not in the ability to break things down into workable units, but rather in how to reverse the process and create anew using those units. Such is the driving force behind bioengineering, and now BioFab.