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Stanford University School of Medicine

Stanford experts discuss the future of bioengineering

Bioengineering — described by Stanford professor and radio host Russ Altman, MD, PhD, as the manipulation of biological systems to solve problems in medicine, the environment and energy — was the focus of a recent episode of the Sirius radio show The Future of Everything. On hand was Stanford’s Drew Endy, PhD, an associate professor of bioengineering, who spoke with Altman about how to unlock bioengineering’s full potential.

Endy told Altman that bioengineering is already incredibly important to the economy, but challenges to further growth still remain. “Regardless of what type of engineer you are and what kinds of problems you’re trying to find solutions to, you have to navigate what I call the core design-build-test engineering cycle,” said Endy. “So how do we get better at navigating this cycle for living systems?”

He suggested that one answer is synthetic biology. “It became apparent that the core of the engineering cycle for living matter could be massively and systematically upgraded. We could separate design from construction by getting better at printing DNA from scratch, called DNA synthesis,” he told Altman. By making the process more efficient, he said, scientists should be able to more quickly and cheaply create new genes or even organisms with specialized functions.

Endy went on to explain how DNA synthesis works: “This is a technology that lets you go from information to physical DNA made from scratch. So you can think of it like a keyboard with just 4 keys: ATCG. You play the keys as you wish, and the machine makes from raw ingredients the DNA depending on how you press the keys.”

DNA synthesis is a critical tool for many applications, such as vaccine development, gene therapy and molecular engineering. Although it has existed for years, it is now more affordable. “In 2003, it cost me four dollars a letter to press each key. This year, it’s about four cents,” he said. This dramatic reduction in cost makes new research more accessible and scientists are getting systematically better at engineering biology, he told Altman.

Endy envisions a future where we’ve made the living world fully engineerable. However, he said this raises many questions on safety, biosecurity and ethics that we need to address.

Previously: Drew Endy discusses the potential to program life and future genetic engineering at TEDxStanford and Drew Endy discusses developing rewriting digital data storage in DNA
Thumbnail image by Christian Schnettelker

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