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In our fast-paced and innovative age, one technological transformation drives out another. In the great Eldorado of biotechnologies, synthetic biology looks set to be the next industrial revolution. Forget robots and instead discover living organisms unknown on earth.


A brief reminder of previous episodes... The first challenge was to sequence the genetic code of living beings, in other words to ‘read’ it. “Decoding  the human genome took ten years and cost $3 billion. Today, the operation takes a day for less than $1,000”, says Emily Leproust, founder of Twist Bioscience in San Francisco, a company specializing in the manufacture of synthetic DNA. Then came the time for manipulation, with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which appeared a long time ago. The idea was to modify the genetic code of a living organism, such as maize, in order to endow it with a specific characteristic, such as disease resistance. However, researchers had been dreaming since the 1970s of creating genetic code, in other words, ‘writing’ DNA. The rapid progress of genomic publishing has gradually made this fantasy a reality. Today, synthetic biology can create living organisms in the laboratory that are unknown in nature.


Many start-ups and research laboratories are now working around the world to conquer what promises to be a huge market, above and beyond scientific performance. To put it simply, the adventure is like a construction game with basic elements offered on the market by various suppliers: those who manufacture genes and those who commercialize organisms from these genes. Creating a synthetic organism involves DNA strands linked together by enzymes or bacteria. The idea is to reprogram the code of the cells so as to change their primary vocation. By way of example, a yeast that breaks down sugar into alcohol (ethanol) could produce gasoline or silk. The production of DNA strands remains the weakest link today, even though colossal advances have been made. To move from the lab to concrete industrial application, the challenge is to produce sufficiently long, high-quality genetic code lines (without replication errors), quickly and inexpensively. The possibility of using synthetic biology rather than chemistry to build DNA marks a breakthrough in ‘gene factories’. By cultivating enzymes, natural technology has made it possible to produce DNA ten to 20 times faster than with chemistry.


In the last century, Moore’s law predicted that the processing power of computers would be doubled every 18 months at the same cost. History has proven him right. Today, the international players in synthetic biology are experiencing the same exponential growth curve with enzymatic DNA synthesis – an acceleration that paves the way for multiple applications.


The world’s major oil companies have already invested considerable sums in these technologies in the hope of finding a credible alternative to fossil fuels using biofuels derived from synthetic biology, such as algae capable of transforming biomass into fuel. The fields of application cover almost all areas, from the production of vaccines and cheaper medicines to new recyclable biomaterials – such as bioplastics made from maize – to pollution-eating bacteria. Will it soon be possible to use tomorrow’s biotechnologies to solve the problems posed by yesterday’s technologies, such as pollution and over-consumption of natural resources? Various companies are already producing cultured meat, ultra-resistant spider silk and leathers. There is great hope, yet these synthetic products will be competing with traditional products such as rubber, vanilla, essential oils and medicines. The main danger lies in the total absence of international regulations in this field, especially when considering that a virus can be manufactured from scratch. What should be done with all these synthetic living organisms in the long term, even though specialists assure us that they will not be able to reproduce?


The outlook is nonetheless very promising, particularly in gene therapy and data storage, the initial mission of DNA being to store information. Easy to read and easy to copy, DNA could become the medium of choice for storing all kinds of information. Emily Leproust explains that Twist Bioscience has collaborated with the University of Washington and Microsoft to show how to store music in DNA. The data from two songs –”Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple and “Tutu” by Miles Davis – were encoded in synthesized DNA. “We reviewed the music to make sure it was 100% correct and it was! DNA will thus now be preserved forever as part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. As music composer Quincy Jones told us, it is remarkable to see a piece of human imagination thus having a chance to never get lost and remain accessible to far-distant generations.”

* Emily Leproust, orfèvre de l’ADN (Emily Leproust, the goldsmith of DNA), 
Journal Le Monde – Septembre 2017

By Anne-marie Clerc
Photos © Metamorworks

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