The Huntsville Times
By Lee Roop
Photo credit: Eric Schultz, The Huntsville Times
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – A Huntsville startup company is using the emerging science of synthetic biology to create "biological Legos" scientists can use to modify living organisms. Dr. Joseph Ng’s company, iXpressGenes, is making genes "from scratch" now in a laboratory at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. "Scratch" is the key word, Ng said last week. "Instead of cutting and pasting existing genes, we are creating new ones," Ng said.
The new genes can, in turn, control the biological functions of the organisms in which they are placed. Ng and others in the emerging field believe that will lead to such things as molecules that absorb and metabolize oil or light up in the presence of pathogens. An example of the latter would be wall paint that changes color in the presence of certain chemicals. "That’s already being done," Ng said.
Other projected uses include creation of new biofuels and diagnosing and targeting diseases. What makes a biosensor better than current sensors? "You cannot beat the sensitivity of any biological system," Ng said, citing the example of a shark’s nasal receptors that can sense blood across a kilometer of ocean.
Synthetic biology is the latest outgrowth of the history of genetics. First, the human genome was charted and links established between certain genes and certain diseases, then scientists began replicating, cutting and splicing genes for research and to modify agricultural products such as corn and wheat.
The latest breakthrough came last May when researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. announced they had inserted synthetic DNA into cells that survived and reproduced according to the inserted synthetic coding. Ng, who teaches biology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, was as excited by the news as the world’s other biologists. Now it might be possible, they realized, to improve upon nature, at least in terms of speed and efficiency.
Ng said he realized that Huntsville contained the rare building blocks for a synthetic biology center. It has HudsonAlpha with its sophisticated machinery for gene replication, and it has the UAH with a pool of biology students and an administration eager to partner in new ventures.
The final building block came into place in December when a commission appointed by President Obama recommended letting the field progress for now without heavy regulation.
"We comprehensively reviewed the developing field of synthetic biology to understand both its potential rewards and risks," said Dr. Amy Gutmann, commission chair and president of the University of Pennsylvania. in a statement announcing the commission’s findings.
"We considered an array of approaches to regulation — from allowing unfettered freedom with minimal oversight and another to prohibiting experiments until they can be ruled completely safe beyond a reasonable doubt. We chose a middle course to maximize public benefits while also safeguarding against risks."
The commission recommended – and the president agreed – to let the research go forward in what Ng called a "transparent" climate where discoveries are subject to peer review.
What are the risks of synthetic biology? Among those most often mentioned are the release of a modified organism that proves harmful to humans, plants or animals; synthesis of harmful mircoorganisms by terrorists; creating patents and monopolies that place too much control in too few hands; and philosophical and religious objections to creating "new life."
Ng believes in the positive possibilities of the new science and has made himself available to news media to discuss the company and its products. His new class in synthetic biology for UAH is also being videotaped for streaming to college students throughout the Southeast without access to such a program.