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Saving the world with synthetic biology

A Stanford Medicine bioengineer sets out to create a world fueled by synthetic biology, creating tools and technologies to see it through.

Drew Endy, PhD, a Stanford bioengineer, is the kind of brilliant that makes your head spin. His ideas come at a mile a minute, each one a potential mini revolution of standard biology, and his excitement for his work is palpable. But, to me, the best part about Endy is his drive to see a mega-mission through: to use bioengineering to change the world for the better, making contentious efforts to innovate with an eye toward solving social, humanitarian and environmental challenges.

In one of my latest Stanford Medicine magazine stories, "How synthetic biology could save us," I speak to Endy about his lofty vision and the research he's conducting to see it through.

If you ask Endy, synthetic biology is a field that aims to "make the making of things" easier. It's a type of science that expands beyond the natural world, creating tools and techniques to support the development of new biology-based innovations -- like new forms of medicine, or an altered crop that can fight pests on its own.

"We tend to think of biology as something that happens to us," Endy said in the story. "But more and more, we are happening to biology. We're in an era, scientifically, where we can express our intentions into the very kernel of life to allow for possibilities that are simply never going to exist otherwise."

Taking out the garbage

One of Endy's big projects is something he calls "the cleanome," a concept rooted in genetics, but with a twist: In a cleanome, all of an organism's non-crucial genetic elements are removed. (Every living thing contains fundamental genes that support its life, in addition to stretches of DNA that are, essentially, garbage.) The goal is to remove genetic fluff, leaving only the core components that allow an organism to survive.

As Endy said in the story:

If you want to build an organism, you want to definitively know what you're working with, and right now part of what bioengineers are working with is ambiguity."

What bioengineering really needs, according to Endy, is certainty as to which genes are needed for a particular organism to survive along with what each gene is doing. ... Establishing a cleanome for key organisms would allow bioengineers to build and create with more certainty and safety, he said.

Preventing disaster

Endy and the researchers in his lab have other big ideas percolating too, one of which he's dubbed a "fail-safe" -- basically a built-in self destruct button for an engineered organism. Say, for instance, a scientist creates a type of cancer-fighting cell that runs around the body and gobbles up tumor cells. If that cell started to evolve new cell-gobbling abilities, that would be dangerous. A fail-safe construct built into the cell would notice such a change and kill the rogue cell before it kills its healthy neighbors.

During our interviews, I reflected on the enormity of his proposal: A civilization that not only coexists with bioengineering but also depends on it, harnesses it, continually develops it -- even loves it.

"You'd almost have to be some sort of benevolent dictator to truly see it through," I'd joked to him. He sees it a little differently. "Perhaps more like reluctant philosopher king."

Image by David Plunkert

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