Everything you needed to know about human-created life forms but were afraid to ask

One of the great pleasures of being involved with O’Reilly Media is learning from the many fascinating people who get involved with the company on one level or another. They’re Friends of O’Reilly, or Foos. We have occasional get-togethers with Foos, our own Nat Torkington has taken the concept to New Zealand, and we have one — on the social graph (see coverage in the next Release 2.0) — coming up this very weekend. While the Foo events are quite off-the-record, the work Foos do is very much public. So we’d like to share with you some of what we’re learning. Over the next few days, we’re going to use this blog to introduce you to one Foo in particular, synthetic biology pioneer Drew Endy. This multi-part profile of Drew and his work is, appropriately, written by another Foo, Quinn Norton, who will be talking about body hacking at ETech in March.–Jimmy Guterman


Dr. Drew Endy tends to fidget. He motions frantically when he’s trying to get something across. “It’s hard because we’ve never made it simple,” he explains with exasperation. Endy, a professor at MIT until the end of the school year (he’s headed to Stanford), engineers new life forms. He’s spent his life doing the hard work of bending the complexity of DNA to his will.

And he’s determined to make it simple for you.

Drew Endy is a leading star in a field that’s emerging to be the biggest thing since Walter Brooke suggested to Dustin Hoffman he should think about plastics. He’s a synthetic biologist, a group of scientists and engineers that take microbes with familiar names like E. coli and yeast and make them do previously unimagined things.

Also: Dr. Endy explains what synthetic biology is. (mp3, 5.7mg)

Synthetic biology is next-generation biotech. Over the past 30 years, genetic engineering has laid the groundwork for what synthetic biology is and will be. All the important innovations of genetic engineering are put to work with newer techniques. What makes synthetic biology more than its predecessor is the ability to write DNA cheaply and easily. After designing a sequence, the genetic engineer can mail it to a vendor that will build the base pairs and overnight it back to them.

Sequencing, or reading out DNA, was once the purview of, at the very least, grad students. Now it can be accomplished by minimally trained unskilled labor. Will DNA writing go the same way DNA reading has gone? Probably not as much, but the price of synthesizing a base pair has lowered 16 fold in the last five years according to Endy.

Synthetic biology doesn’t change the goals of biotech: medical applications, environmental remediation, biology based manufacture, etc. But it brings them closer, and adds more possibilities to the pile.

So what does a future of human-built biology look like? The obvious ideas are the ones researched now institutionally. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that a great mover in this field will be pharmaceuticals, and the medical concerns that drive the healthcare industry. We will likely see progress towards biological agents for pollution remediation, drug manufacture, and nanomaterials. Many of these are not only in the works, but on the verge of entering the market. After that, a little imagination goes a long way.

The holy grail right now is alternative fuel production. Petroleum’s supply and environmental problems might not dog an organism custom designed to get from the sun’s energy to a liquid we can stick in our vehicles. If geneticists can produce a viable replacement for petroleum, there’s a mint to be made even if the organism goes off patent in 20 years. J. Craig Venter’s institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, are particularly geared to this goal. The institute receives its research money from the U.S. Department of Energy as well as Synthetic Genomics. It’s still a ways off. The institute has yet to complete its first fully synthetic organism of any kind, much less one that makes gas. With genes already modified to produce drugs, and the attention paid to fuel, a wide array of other products are candidates to grow instead of fabricate. Synthetic biology is very serious business.

Tremendous minds and piles of money are pouring into the potential organisms, and almost any one of them could easily payback that investment if successful. Drew Endy, despite is in-demand talents isn’t part of any of that.

What makes Drew Endy’s work unique in his field is what he wants to do with it, not the research itself. He wants to modularize DNA into something like a programming language. Then he wants to give it away.

Tomorrow: How can you make anyone a genetic engineer?

Wondering what that “Hello world” image is doing at the top of the post? It’s synthetic biology in action: Students at the University of Texas re-engineered E. coli to be photosensitive, like photographic paper. Their first message? The programmer’s traditional. It’s published here courtesy of Jeff Tabor and Randy Rettberg.