Building Life A Molecule At A Time

Health : DNA molecule, double helix and biologist tests DNA samples
They're called "synthetic biologists" and they boldly claim the ability to make never-before-seen living things, one genetic molecule at a time.

They're mixing, matching and stacking DNA's chemical components like microscopic Lego blocks in an effort to make biologically based computers, medicines and alternative energy sources. The rapidly expanding field is confounding the taxonomists' centuries-old system of classifying species and raising concerns about the new technology's potential for misuse.

Though scientists have been combining the genetic material of two species for 30 years now, their work has remained relatively simplistic.

Scientists might add one foreign gene to an organism to produce a drug like insulin. The technique is more art than science given the brute trial-and-error it takes to create cells that make drugs.

So a new breed of biologists is attempting to bring order to the hit-and-miss chaos of genetic engineering by bringing to biotechnology the same engineering strategies used to build computers, bridges and buildings.

The idea is to separate cells into their fundamental components and then rebuild new organisms, a much more complex way of genetic engineering.

The burgeoning movement is attracting big money and some of the biggest names in biology, many of whom are attending the "Life Engineering Symposium" that begins Friday in San Francisco.

"Synthetic biology is genetic engineering rethought," said Harvard Medical Center researcher George Church, a leader in the field. "It challenges the notion of what's natural and what's synthetic."

Already, synthetic biologists have created a polio virus and another smaller virus by stitching together individual genes purchased from biotechnology companies.

Now, researchers are getting closer to creating more complex living things with actual utility.

In Israel, scientists have created the world's smallest computer by engineering DNA to carry out mathematical functions.

J. Craig Venter, the entrepreneurial scientist who mapped the human genome, announced last month that he intends to string together genes to create from scratch novel organisms that can produce alternative fuels such as hydrogen and ethanol.

With a $42.6 million grant that originated at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Berkeley researchers are creating a new malaria drug by removing genetic material of the E. coli bacterium and replacing it with genes from wormwood and yeast.

"We're building parts that can be assembled into devices and devices that can be turned into systems," said Jay Keasling, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Berkeley synthetic biology department, which was created last year.