In January, when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced it had chosen Richmond as the site for its new research facility, the city was all trumpets and fanfare, with welcome banners flying and “I [heart] LBNL” pins fastened to lapels. And why not? The lab’s second campus, scheduled to open in 2016, is expected to generate hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for Richmond in the coming years. For a city plagued by unemployment, poverty and crime, this is thrilling news.
But amidst all the excitement, some questions remain unanswered, most notably: exactly what kind of research will take place at the lab? The new LBNL campus will join existing federal labs throughout the East Bay, including the Joint Bioenergy Institute and the Energy Biosciences Institute, and will focus on biosciences and biofuel production. But it will also house a once-obscure field of lab research that is fast becoming the latest green science craze: synthetic biology. And that has some people worried.
Dubbed “extreme genetic engineering” by critics like Jim Thomas of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, an international watchdog group that researches the effects of emerging technologies, synthetic biology is the design and construction of novel biological entities. This may lead to the production of new kinds of DNA, enzymes, cells and even artificial life forms. It promises to allow scientists to do things like create new, more efficient ways to generate biofuels from sugar or engineer microbes to act like microscopic chemical or pharmaceutical factories.
Jay D. Keasling, associate director at the National Lab, CEO at JBEI and UC Berkeley professor, says that synthetic biology is not so much a new field as it is an advance on genetic engineering, which has been around since the 1970s. “The difference is that we’re trying to make the engineering of biology more reliable and reproducible,” he said in a phone interview. “That allows us to undertake and solve grander problems.” Keasling’s lab recently used yeast that would normally produce ethanol (like the yeast used in beer brewing) and engineered it to instead produce artemisinin — an effective anti-malarial drug currently produced from expensive plant sources. Through partnerships and licensing agreements with drug and chemical companies Sanofi-Aventis and Amyris, Keasling said more than 100 million people per year will get access to the drug that otherwise wouldn’t have it available.
“We focus largely on foundational technologies,” Adam Arkin, the executive director at UC Berkeley’s Synthetic Biology Institute, said in a telephone interview. “Things you do to organisms to make them more reliable, have them manufacture things for us.”
Arkin said that while SBI is more an alliance of researchers than a physical institute, much of the research currently being conducted by SBI scientists at LBNL and JBEI will be housed in the lab’s new Richmond facility. He compared synthetic biology to the work done on integrated circuits back in the 1970s and 80s that gave rise to powerful computer technologies. Natural silicon, he said, doesn’t behave the way scientists want it to because it’s not a pure single crystal. But if scientists normalize and standardize it, it becomes a known structure that operates in a predictable way. It’s the same principle for synthetic biology, he said, but instead of standardizing a compound, it’s standardizing life forms.
For example, he said, imagine finding a microbe in the environment — there are millions of microbes in a gram of soil — that you want to coax into making a useful chemical or protein. Nothing about evolution will tell you about how it’s going to react to that process. Here’s where synthetic biology comes in, said Arkin. “We can break them into little pieces and then figure out how to separate that out from all that evolution has wrought so they operate the way we want,” he said.
The ability to manipulate biological systems with predictable and reproducible results is exciting because it means that some chemicals and compounds only found in nature could now be produced efficiently in a laboratory. Keasling gave an example of this that his lab is working on right now, using yeast to manufacture squalane. The compound is used as a moisturizer in cosmetics and is currently harvested from the livers of sharks. More than a third of all shark species are in danger of extinction, he said, and making squalane in a lab would lessen the need to kill sharks to make makeup and lotions.