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UW-Madison professors and students explore new area of science research

Designer Genes

Madison, WI | Posted on February 27th, 2008

Just like Levi Strauss and Calvin Klein, J. Craig Venter, a scientist world-renowned for his contribution to the mapping of his own genome, has put his name on his product—it's just in much smaller print.

Earlier this year, Venter reported he and other researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. created the first fully-synthetic genome from scratch. To distinguish the synthetic from natural genomes, the scientists encoded words like "VENTERINSTITVTE" and "CRAIGVENTER" into the synthetic DNA.

The work at the JCVI falls under a relatively young category of science called synthetic biology. Synthetic biology merges science with engineering to redesign new biological parts and systems to achieve what Mother Nature has yet to achieve on her own. Synthetic biologists, like those at JCVI, hope to use these synthetic systems to find solutions to health, environmental and energy problems that plague the world today.

With the growth of the field of synthetic biology in recent years, so too have the numbers of UW-Madison scientists devoted to this area of research. UW-Madison professors in genetics, biochemistry, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and chemistry all dabble in synthetic biology.

This past November, three UW-Madison undergraduates competed against 54 teams at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, or iGEM at MIT to test their skill at building biological systems from simple interchangeable parts called BioBricks. BioBricks, the brainchild of researchers at MIT and the University of California at San Francisco, are distinct biological parts that are encoded by DNA to perform a particular biological function.

According to Franco Cerrina, UW-Madison director of the Center for NanoTechnology and professor of electrical engineering, assembling BioBricks™ is similar to picking up the parts necessary to make an electrical circuit at an electronics store. "Instead, we can grab these [BioBricks™] and assemble them to make [biological] circuits."

With the help of Cerrina and other UW-Madison biochemistry professors, the UW-Madison undergraduate team used and developed BioBricks to help increase the production of a protein capable of blocking unwanted cell death, which can be caused by chemotherapy drugs. Although their BioBricks did not perform as planned, the team still left iGEM with a bronze medal. The experience at the iGEM competition helped introduce Nathan Klapoetke, who graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2007, to the world of biology.

"I didn't even know what a protein was before [iGEM]," Klapoetke said, "But you don't really need to know that much because instead of looking at all the details of how the cells actually function you try to create your own thing." Now, Klapoetke is visiting synthetic biology programs across the country to decide where he wants to go to graduate school.

The idea of introducing an entirely novel organism into the world or the potential use of synthetic biology to re-engineer pathogens for biowarfare does put this science on the radar of some technology watchdog groups. One such watch group is the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, or ETC group, which has repeatedly reported concerns with genetic engineering, human genomics, nanotechnology and other technologies. In response to Venter's latest publication, the ETC group continues its demand for a moratorium on synthetic biology until the ethics and concerns for laboratory workers, the public and the environment can be argued and debated.

Although many scientists believe synthetic biology will offer more benefits than drawbacks, leading scientists are working on and debating plans for biosafety and biosecurity. Synbiosafe in Europe and SynBERC in the United States both focus on the impact of synthetic biology on health and welfare as well as educating and promoting the debate on the biosafety issues. Scientific conferences on synthetic biology also focus a portion of the proceedings on the bioethics and biosecurity as well as public perception. In October 2007, the JCVI, Center for Strategic and International Studies and MIT released their assessment of the synthetic genomics biosafety issues to formulate options for its governance to prevent the misuse of synthetic DNA.

Despite the fears and concerns surrounding synthetic biology, recent findings show the intended benefits of the new field. In April 2006, Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, engineered yeast capable of producing a precursor to a drug that is highly effective against multidrug-resistant malaria. Researchers hope these findings will lead to a cheaper and more reliable source of the anti-malarial drug.

"[With synthetic biology, you] can create dangerous organisms, in principle," Cerrina said. "[But,] you can also create the cure of a vaccine."

Cerrina is currently recruiting for the 2008 iGEM competition. Students will be fully supported during the summer to work on their project, and they will get to present their findings at the next iGEM event. Innovation demands new perspectives, new collaborations and new ideas.

"It's pretty neat to work in multidisciplinary teams to get perspectives from other people, and you learn a lot, too," Klapoetke said. "[iGEM is about] push[ing] the boundaries and see[ing] what's possible."


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