Synthetic Biology: DNA as Software, Biologists as Programmers?
In 2010, Craig Venter (after having completed the draft human genome) announced that he succeeded to "create life". In fact, his team had replaced the genome of a bacterial cell by a fully synthetic genome derived from a different , bacterial species. This achievement is generally perceived as a hallmark of Synthetic Biology, which on the one hand tries to generate "life from the scratch", but on the other tries to use DNA of existing organisms as "software" to engineer organisms in a so far unprecedented depth of control and manipulation. Genome editing using CRISPR-Cas allows very precise changes of physiological circuits. The potential for medicine is very high. For some genetic disorders, such as Duchenne dystrophy, single nucleotide editing allows to cure patients by targeting the editing machineries to specific parts of the body (although technically possible, as the case of Jiankou He in China shows, engineering of the germ line is ethically problematic). Is our society mature enough to handle this degree of scientific power?
After studying Molecular Biotechnology in the University of Heidelberg, Dominik Niopek did his Ph.D. at the DKFZ on optogenetics, and is heading a research group at the University of Heidelberg on Synthetic Biology.