Jeffrey Hickok on synthetic biology

“I can’t stop talking about how little the biotechnology industry is doing to support ecosystem needs,” says biologist Dr. Jeffrey Hickok, chief of the Genetics Branch at the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Hickok is quick to point out that he is not specifically critical of biotechnology – he’s been working in the field his entire career – but he is frustrated with the industry’s lack of response to environmental concerns.

Thanks to advances in genetic technology and new synthetic biology approaches, we have what Hickok calls a “unique opportunity” to take a variety of biological systems and create unique and transformative processes. Synthetic biology has the potential to change how we treat and treat ourselves. The changes on this list are just a few of the potential benefits of synthetic biology and synthetic biology techniques:

Endocrine disruptors like BPA (bisaccharide, for environmental impact assessment purposes) can now be manufactured artificially in a laboratory without accidentally making endocrine disruptors in foods, chemicals we put on the skin, in plastics and other products, or in other plants. Only a decade ago synthetic biology techniques opened the potential for developing means to manufacture new versions of endocrine disruptors without repeating the errors of the past – for example, repeating BPA in cosmetics and for smoking cessation. The possibility of creating synthetics that can provide sufficient quantities of a natural compound for safety testing without exposing people to unacceptable amounts of that compound. Synthetic biology techniques are being used today to generate fatty acid replacement therapies for HIV and many other human diseases. In an earlier era, this technology would have required reversion to the original bioengineering process in order to generate these therapies; now it is possible to operate at a clean plant using only artificial fatty acid replacement. This opens up a whole new range of biotechnologies that can be developed. Vibrant ecosystems being created where ecosystems were used to previously only be enhanced – as in recent advances in stew-generation.

On the other hand, Hickok worries that today’s expansive and wide-ranging applications of synthetic biology techniques are creating some very disturbing side effects. The team behind the iconic cell line Replenish recently reported that the bacterial cells lining infected wounds can live longer and grow larger than expected, and that their generation requires patients to undergo chemotherapy.

“That sounds horrible, but it happens when cells are effectively killed by another chemical, not by the synthetic technology used to make the fake cells,” Hickok points out. “I’m generally worried that the applications of synthetic biology methods we see today in the environment will carry the same kind of risks.”

Biology isn’t the only corner of environmental science that needs an upgrade.

“If there is one area where we are lacking the sophistication of chemistry,” Hickok continues, “it is in our ability to manage the huge amounts of data that exist in the system of the environment.” The organization called the National Center for Environmental Science (NCES) would better prepare the U.S. to use data, Hickok explains, because “we have a huge database of data about the environment.”

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