TCS Daily

Shrinkage and Synthesis

By Charles Matthew Rousseaux - May 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Fiscal conservatives often dream about shrinking the size of government. At least one part of bureaucracy recently laid out a plan to do so voluntarily. However, the strategy is more likely to give conservatives a sinking than a shrinking feeling, since the miniaturization will most likely require more money and manpower. The spending is still likely to be worth it, since the manufacture of mini-medicines coupled to the construction of programmable living objects is likely to produce large gains for human health.

The manufacture of potent mini-meds is the destination of the recently launched National Institutes of Health (NIH) Nanomedicine Roadmap Initiative. As its background statement explained, "The long-term goal . . . is to manipulate biology's nanosystems within living cells in order to improve human health."

The cells that creatures are composed of are themselves constructed of countless different molecular assemblies. Proteins, tiny machines made up of amino acids, manufacture most of the substances cells need to thrive and divide. DNA and RNA serve as both blueprints for those protein machines and product line managers, ensuring that proper amounts of particular proteins are made and sent to the right intra-and extra-cellular destinations.

At the moment, researchers can only manipulate such molecular machines in crude fashion. Since the function of proteins is often a product of their form, instruments will have to be devised that can determine the exact structures of proteins -- down to their atoms. Measuring and manipulating them with the desired dexterity will require the design of really tiny devices -- even smaller than the ones that George Castanza's veterinarian used to fix the squirrel he had run over. (Yes, if the scientists are successful, there will be significant shrinkage.)

While researchers have made great strides in understanding the molecular pathways of common cellular products (ask any bleary eyed biochemistry student), implementation of the Nanomedicine Initiative will require the mapping of entire chemical networks -- the exact ways in which all of the molecules inside cells interact.

As a first step in that direction, the NIH plans to support the formation of Nanomedicine Development Centers. At those centers, interdisciplinary groups of scientists (ranging from medical doctors to computer scientists) will characterize cellular machines in exacting detail and attempt to "define biological parts and processes in engineering terms," according to the project overview. Their studies in reduction are likely to be complemented by the constructional studies of scientists in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biologists are beginning to synthesize "Life, version 2.0" according to W. Wayt Gibbs in the May issue of Scientific American. It's an apt appellation, since the scientists are designing devices dedicated to different duties from DNA and similar molecules. For instance, researchers at MIT are starting to assemble machines from interchangeable DNA parts, which they dub "BioBricks." Each type of BioBrick (there are more than 50) codes for a different function, but they all operate according to standardized biochemical signals and can be interchanged with one another at will. Standardization of that sort may eventually allow researchers to do production line style genetic engineering inside cells -- adding new functions and making new forms with precision.

Mr. Gibbs said that Life 2.0 is likely to find its first uses in "jobs that require sophisticated chemistry, such as detecting toxins or synthesizing drugs." The possibilities are endless though, ranging from mine-detecting plants to self-mending sweaters. One day such creatures might even . . .(insert your own joke).

As a consequence, small biology is likely to become big business. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, more than 100 U.S. laboratories are working in that field, up from 10 four decades ago. John McCaskill, who oversees the European Union's artificial life program, said there is an ongoing "revolution" in the field of synthetic biology.

A few products are already near production. Scientists at Purdue University recently demonstrated that carbon nanotubes are better at attaching to bone tissue than the titanium currently used in artificial joints, which may lead to improved implants. Nanosphere Inc. is currently hospital testing a detector that uses nanoparticles to pick out genetic markers for everything from genetic tendencies to form blood clots to agents of bioterrorism.

Beyond that, a molecular medical doctor living inside cells could eventually preemptively prescribe anti-cancer treatments to people, preventing them from becoming patients (or even worse, enrolled in an HMO). Its probable precursor was recently described in the journal Nature. Although the DNA computer is extremely simple by today's silicon standards -- it can calculate only "yes" and "no" answers based on a single variable -- and is several decades away from practical use, it still offers a glimpse of the potential power of nanomedicine and synthetic biology. Other possibilities will undoubtedly be unveiled at the first synthetic biology conference scheduled for this June.

Life 2.0 is likely to make measurable improvements in Life 1.0. However, neither synthesis nor shrinkage will be pure panaceas -- molecular doctors and designed bacteria are likely to have their share of bugs. It's something humans should keep in mind as they begin molecular manufacturing of mini-medicines and precision programming of living objects.

A frequent TCS contributor, Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. He recently wrote for TCS about taxing the Internet.


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