Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
December 18, 2005


By Robert S. Boyd

WASHINGTON -- When scientists announced the reconstruction of the
lethal 1918 Spanish flu virus last month, they opened a window on a
booming new research field with enormous promise for good -- or for

Known as "synthetic biology," it's the artificial creation of DNA,
genes and cells that mimic, or surpass, natural systems. Dozens of
labs around the world -- some public, some commercial -- have begun to
churn out materials to make synthetic drugs, vaccines, pollution
sensors, even biological computers.

Some experts warn that such artificial systems could be accidentally
or deliberately released into the environment, possibly with harmful,
even deadly, effects. A clever bioterrorist, for example, might be
able to re-engineer the smallpox virus and cause an epidemic. People
would have no immunity against such an artificial organism.

An article in the Nov. 9 issue of the magazine New Scientist pointed
out that a terrorist could order the genes to make smallpox or bird
flu to be sent to him through the mail. The gene sequences are
publicly available, and there's no system to prevent their misuse.

"If we want to make a new organism, we need oversight, maybe
regulation," said Lisa Geller, a lawyer who specializes in high-tech
products at the Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering law firm in Washington.
"Hopefully, nothing bad will happen."

Alarms about possible negative consequences of biological tinkering
aren't new. Genetic modification of plants and the cloning of animals,
for example, are highly controversial, even though these operations
use natural, not synthetic, raw materials. Author Michael Crichton
wrote a best-selling science-fiction novel, "Prey," about artificial
particles taking over.

To perform synthetic biology, scientists use the tools of modern
biochemistry to add, subtract or alter the tiny units, called
nucleotides, that make up the DNA in a gene. They can, say, change a
"C" to an "A," or vice versa, in the four-letter genetic alphabet.

They then can insert a tiny ring of modified DNA, called a plasmid,
into a bacterium to make it do something it didn't do before, such as
produce insulin for diabetics.

"We can design DNA to encode anything you can think of," said Pamela
Silver, a microbiologist at the Harvard Medical School's Department of
Systems Biology in Boston. "The genie is out of the bottle." '

For example, Blue Heron Biotechnology, a private company in Bothell,
Wash., boasts on its Web site that it "can synthesize any gene,
regardless of sequence, complexity or size, with 100 percent

Genemed Synthesis in south San Francisco says it can create synthetic
genes containing up to 15,000 nucleotides in two or three weeks.

"I hope people wake up and realize this is a whole new biology," said
Peter Ward, author of a new book called "Life as We Do Not Know It."

"In the last five years, we've come to realize that we can make
microbial life in a lot more ways than Mother Earth did," said Ward,
an expert on alien life at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The first complete artificial creature, the virus that causes polio,
was assembled at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, in
Long Island, N.Y., in 2002. The next year, a virus that preys on
bacteria was manufactured from scratch at the J. Craig Venter
Institute in Rockville, Md.

Venter now has a government contract to construct an artificial
bacterium, an organism much larger and more complicated than a virus.

To build an artificial biological system, Silver said, scientists can
draw on a set of synthetic modules or parts, much like an electronics
engineer designing a new computer chip.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge maintains a
Registry of Standard Biological Parts (, which
contains thousands of bits and pieces of genes, proteins and other
components of living systems. There's a part to make nerve fibers in
the brain glow so doctors can detect them in an MRI scan. Another part
is used in "bacterial factories" to produce insulin.

Silver's lab is designing cells that can do rudimentary computing.

"We're working on a cell that can count to two," she said. Such a
"bio-counter" could keep track of the number of times a cell divides,
thus determining its age. That can be important in understanding
cancer or Alzheimer's disease.

For more information online, go to

"We can design DNA to encode anything you can think of. The genie is
out of the bottle."

Pamela Silver, a microbiologist at Harvard Medical School

The first complete artificial creature, the virus that causes polio,
was assembled at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, in
Long Island, N.Y., in 2002.

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