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Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?

In “A Life of Its Own," Michael Specter explores the opportunities and challenges posed by the emerging field of synthetic biology. “No scientific achievement has promised so much, and none has come with greater risks or clearer possibilities for deliberate abuse,” Specter writes. Synthetic biologists “see cells as hardware, and genetic code as the software required to make them run,” he notes. “By using gene-sequence information and synthetic DNA, they are attempting to reconfigure the metabolic pathways of cells to perform entirely new functions, such as manufacturing chemicals and drugs.”

One team of biologists, led by Jay Keasling at Berkeley, has had great success with amorphadine, the precursor to the malaria medicine artemisinin: they constructed a microbe to manufacture the compound, and by 2012 they will have produced enough artemisinin that the cost for a course of treatment will drop from as much as ten dollars to less than a dollar. “We have got to the point in human history where we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us,” Keasling tells Specter. He envisions a much larger expansion of the discipline, engineering cells to manufacture substances like biofuels.
 
 

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  1. He envisions a much larger expansion of the discipline, engineering cells to manufacture substances like biofuels.
 
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