Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Bio-Brick Revolution

By Michael Cook

While synthetic biology promises benefits such as glow-in-the dark trees that replace city lights, there are many more sinister applications that have many people worried.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

A small American start-up company recently raised nearly half a million dollars through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in order to use synthetic biology to create “sustainable natural lighting” – plants that glow in the dark. According to the pitch, councils could make major savings by planting luminescent trees instead of paying for street lamps.

Or at least that’s the long-term vision.

But synthetic biology is no gimmick. It’s a new form of engineering that uses “bio-bricks” to create new biological systems. It could revolutionise medicine, food production and energy production.

It is already a burgeoning industry, and by 2016 the world market for synbio products could be as much as US$16 billion. “There’s not a single aspect of human life that doesn’t have the potential to be totally transformed by these technologies in the future,” says biotechnology magnate J. Craig Venter.

An example is the best way to explain it. Arsenic-laced groundwater is a huge health problem in Bangladesh. Some researchers have taken luminescence genes from fireflies and arsenic-sensing genes from other microorganisms, and inserted them into a bacterium. When the bacteria are added to water, they glow in proportion to the concentration of arsenic in the water. This simple test could save countless lives.

That is just one of thousands of possible...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.