Making living matter programmable

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Jay Keasling (left), director of SynBERC, and moderator Corey Powell of Discover listen as Monsanto scientist Virginia Ursin explains the company’s interest in synthetic biology. Christine Fu photo.

Thirty years ago, the future lay in programming computers. Today, it’s programming cells.

That was the message of panelists at an afternoon session yesterday (March 25) in Stanley Hall auditorium titled “Programming Life: the revolutionary potential of synthetic biology.” Co-presented by UC Berkeley’s Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) and Discover magazine, the panels brought together a dozen of synthetic biology’s pioneers from academia and industry, in addition to ethicists focused on the societal impact of the technology.

Keynote speaker Juan Enriquez, a self-described “curiosity expert” and co-founder of the company Synthetic Genomics, compared the digital revolution spawned by thinking of information as a string of ones and zeros to the coming synthetic biology revolution, premised on thinking about life as a mix of interchangeable parts – genes and gene networks – that can be learned and manipulated like any language.

At the moment, this genetic manipulation, a natural outgrowth of genetic engineering, focuses on altering bacteria and yeast to produce products they wouldn’t normally make, such as fuels or drugs. “To do with biology what you would do if you were designing a piece of software,” according to moderator Corey Powell, editor at large of Discover, which plans to publish a story about the conference and post the video online.

UC Berkeley chemical engineer Jay Keasling has been a key player in developing the field of synthetic biology over the last decade. Enriquez introduced Keasling as someone “who in his spare time goes out and tries to build stuff that will cure malaria, and biofuels and the next generation of clean tech, all while mentoring students at this university and at the national labs and creating whole new fields of science.”

Keasling, director of SynBERC, a UC Berkeley-led multi-institution collaboration that is laying the foundations for the field, expressed excitement about the newest development: the release next month by the pharmaceutical company sanofi aventis of a synthetic version of artemsinin, “the world’s best antimalarial drug,” he said. Sparked by discoveries in Keasling’s lab more than a decade ago, the drug is produced by engineered yeast and will be the first product from synthetic biology to reach the market.

“There are roughly 300 to 500 million cases of malaria each year,” he said. “Sanofi will initially produce about 100 million treatments, which will cover one-third to one-quarter of the need.”

Biofuels from yeast

As CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute, Keasling is now focused on engineering microbes to turn “a billion tons of biomass that go unutilized in the U.S. on an annual basis … into fuel, producing roughly a third of the need in the U.S.”

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But other advances are on the horizon, he said, such as engineering new materials and engineering “green” replacements for all the products now made from petroleum. “Some of these have the potential to significantly reduce our carbon footprint, by say, 80 percent,” he said.

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