To say that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a divisive topic would be an understatement. Two sides emerge: Proponents ardently exalt the benefits of altered life, while opponents admonish anyone who will listen about the possible dangers of cutting and pasting genetic code. Unfortunately, due to the business practices of companies in the agricultural industry, “GMO” has become a dirty word around the world. Engineered crops receive most of the attention, and people seem to be ignorant of those GMOs that do not belong to agro-giants. The general public is missing the bigger picture: a colorful landscape populated by microscopic organisms.
In 1976, a small California startup called Genentech had a breakthrough: They created and patented bacteria that could produce insulin. Up to this point, the protein (which is necessary for the treatment of diabetes) had to be obtained via a complex chemical synthesis or harvested from the pancreas of cows. The approach was a step in the right direction, as most of the insulin today is made by GMOs at a lower cost than chemical synthesis and without the inherent risk of allergic reaction that comes when extracting any medicine from livestock.
The insulin-producing microbes marked the first deliberately and rationally designed GMOs. Scientists had modified cells for a few years prior, but the motivation and purpose was to study them, not to manufacture valuable substances. This got the ball rolling. Promises of new advances and broad possibilities led many scientists to become interested in tinkering with life.
However, the process of programming with DNA was, and to a large extent still remains, arduous, unstandardized and pricey. A custom design and an intricate strategy are necessary for every gene one would want to insert. Thankfully, “biohackers” have made a conscious effort to standardize their practices. These scientists, students and hobbyists operate in universities, crowdfunded do-it-yourself labs (There is one in Somerville!) or out of their own kitchens. They are the driving forces behind a new field called “synthetic biology,” which has made genetic modification cheaper and more routine.
Synthetic biology has a strong presence in our state. Every year, over 3,000 undergraduates from around the world present their work down the street at MIT in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition. The technologies are all over the map: bacteria that detect landmines, microbes that make fuel from trash and little packets that test whether the food in your fridge has gone bad or not.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the nascent field is that its members are straying from the traditional sources of funding in science and looking beyond government bodies and non-profits for their dollars. For example, most iGEM teams (like the one at Tufts) raise funds through their parent university and corporate sponsors. An even more dramatic approach was taken by Omri Amirav-Drory and Antony Evans. The two scientists led a campaign on Kickstarter, promising backers modified watercress (Arabidopsis thaliana) that is engineered to glow in the dark. Interestingly enough, the cress will not be subject to any government regulations, as it is not a food, and the modification methods used neatly skirt current legislation.
The general accessibility of synthetic biology is poised to reshape our lives as we reprogram the genetic code. The work of biomodders will lead to innovative products, but is also very likely to outpace legislation and create new challenges in privacy, security, ethics and society. Our generation might just get its technological revolution. Only this time, we’ll be hacking life instead of computers.
Petar Todorov is a senior majoring in chemistry. He can be reached at Petar.Todorov@tufts.edu.