Friday, February 19, 2010

BioBricks

The New York Times Magazine last week had an article on the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM), held each year at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Teams of students from all over the world vie for temporary possession of the grand trophy, a large aluminum Lego. Their entries? Bioengineered life forms -- jiggered bacteria, mostly -- that have had their DNA modified to perform some useful activity -- make drugs, synthesize fuel, generate electricity, clean up pollution, and so on. In the process, iGEM is compiling lending libraries of "BioBricks," snippets of DNA that code for different cellular functions. In the somewhat facetious words of Drew Endy, an iGEM founder, you can make a bookcase by cutting down a tree, turn it into lumber, saw it up, plane it, and nail it together, or you can program the DNA in a tree so that it grows into a bookcase.

DNA as a Lego set! I saw this coming back in the year 2000 when I wrote the following tongue-in-cheek fake news story as my Boston Globe Science Musing (which I reproduced here in 2006). I was pretty much on schedule in my predictions. The regulatory and ethical issues remain unresolved. As the NYT Magazine story makes clear, the field of synthetic biology has all the energy, free-spiritedness and wild frontiers that characterized the early days of the internet.

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June 11, 2012. Hasbro-Mattel, the toy division of Monsanto Universal, today announced a product that will likely be found under many a Christmas tree later this year: The Little Creator Bioconstruction Set.

It's not cheap, but this spiffy kit lets kids create microbes that they design themselves -- living organisms, unlike any that exist in nature. "The day of Tinker Toys and Erector sets is past," said a spokesperson for Hasbro-Mattel. "No more static or even motorized constructions. With the Little Creator Bioconstruction Set a kid can build things that metabolize, interact with the environment, move about, reproduce."

For the moment, this means one-celled organisms that must be observed under a microscope, but the company promises multicelled creatures within a few years.

The present kit contains an assortment of 600 genes -- the minimum necessary for life, plus enough extras to add variety. With the included apparatus, children can string these genes together into a genome of their own choosing, then insert the genome into an organism of their choice.

The number of possible arrangements is staggering. Not even the toy's manufacturer can predict what sorts of creatures might emerge from the apparatus.

"One exciting part of play will be naming the organisms a child creates," said the company spokesperson. "That privilege belongs to the child alone."

The Little Creator Bioconstruction Set had its origin in scientific research done at the Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland around the turn of the millennium. Scientists at the institute set out to determine the minimum gene set necessary for life.

They started with the free-living organism that had the smallest known number or genes, the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, a harmless inhabitant of the human genital tract and lungs. The bacterium has just 480 genes, compared to more than 30,000 in a human.

One by one, the scientists inactivated genes along M. genitalium's single chromosome, to find out which genes the tiny organism couldn't do without. They finally zeroed in on about 300 genes that are essential for viability. These are among the 600 genes included in the Little Creator Bioconstruction Set.

Still, a chromosome construction toy was not possible until the technology of gene splicing and manipulation became sufficiently inexpensive. The Hasbro-Mattel technology uses specially-designed silicon chips to facilitate the selection and splicing of DNA strands.

"Kids today are too sophisticated to accept a goldfish or a hamster as a pet," said the Hasbro-Mattel spokesperson. "They want life forms they have designed themselves, and the Little Creator Bioconstruction Set lets them do just that."

Asked if the new toy lets children "play God," the spokesperson said: "I would rather say it lets them play Steve Jobs. What we are talking about here is unrestricted innovation, a chance for kids to exercise their human creative potential without impediment or restraint."

Nonetheless, some government officials and academic ethicists are concerned.

When the possibility of creating artificial life from a minimum gene set was first broached in the winter of 1999, scientists and ethicists called for a full public debate of the morality of exercising this technology.

However, before the debate could get properly underway, it was left behind by the rapidly developing technology. By the year 2008, genetic engineering of original and modified organisms was commonplace. It was inevitable that sooner or later these powerful technologies would become the basis of a children's toy.

"What seems bizarre or even frightening to one generation, becomes old hat to the next," says ethicist Pascal Swagger of Pfizer University (formerly Harvard). "The ethical implications of new technologies will need to be assessed more quickly if regulatory agencies hope to have any say in shaping our future. By the time a technology in embedded in a child's toy, it is too late."

What about the possibility that organisms built with the Little Creator Bioconstruction Set will pose an environmental hazard? The Hasbro-Mattel spokesperson said: "We are confident that any microbe assembled from the current gene set will be harmless, and certainly negligible compared to the countless genetically-modified organisms that have been released into the environment during the past decade."

"And besides," he added, "so many naturally-occurring animals and plants have gone extinct due to human technological activities, the world can use a little novelty."

More novelty is in the works. If all goes as planned, within a few years kids will have the ability to design pets they can play with without a microscope. Pink hamsters. Polka-dotted gold fish. Parakeets that glow in the dark. "The time for debate is over," says Pascal Swagger. "The future is here."