If I understand recent news reports correctly, possibilities for synthetic biology have widened dramatically. While researchers have been able to ‘expand’ the capacity of DNA by introducing new base pairs in vitro, a letter (registration and/or payment required for full access) in the latest (May 9, 2014) edition of Nature claims to have developed a means of using a third base pair in vivo.
Put another way, the synthetic base pairs were successfully replicated by a living cell, rather than just in a test tube. That would allow for massive reproduction of compounds built with this new synthetic DNA, as living cells can reproduce entire strands of DNA, while methods like polymerase chain reaction (PCR) work on smaller sequences. In vivo replication is also faster and more accurate compared to methods conducted outside the cell.
Arguably this is the most significant development in synthetic biology since the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report on the topic back in 2010. The recommendations on how to both nurture and monitor the emergent field of synthetic biology were relatively high level. The researchers involved have already formed a company to support commercialization of the work, and at least one of the researchers is convinced that the possibility of synthetic DNA being released into the wild is zero. Such claims deserve the kind of fact-checking that the Commission encouraged in its Recommendation 15. Unfortunately, that’s the recommendation missing in this scorecard developed by the Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project.
It would be nice if there could be a discussion on what this development means that ends up somewhere between “Stop!” and “There’s Nothing To See Here.” Perhaps the Commission could nudge things at its next meeting (early June in Atlanta).