It was made clear to us through articles in a variety of Magazines: (eg. “Die Zeit”, “Profil”, Der Spiegel”, Spektrum der Wissenschaft”…) Synthetic biology is a hot topic! Our interest was quickly piqued and we decided this year, to dedicate our project to this growing branch of research.
Scientists from all over the world see a great potential for this technology, that might change our daily lives in the coming few years in ways similar to how the chemical industry changed it a century ago, with new artificial materials. One thinks back on how much our lives were turned inside out by the introduction of artificial materials in the form of packaging, building, adhesive, and insulation materials etc. Our modern daily lives would be impossible without these materials.
When we asked for permission for this project at the Austrian health ministry, we were informed that there are absolutely no laws in regards to the use of synthetic amino acids for new proteins and that (as is the case with our development of synthetic enzymes) everyone is able to act at their own discretion.
Up until now, the risk assessment of genetically engineered organisms was loosely defined thusly: Scientists take an inoffensive jelly-fish Aequorea Victoria and extract from it its famous green-florescent proteins. The responsible genetic predisposition is given to a likewise innocuous bacteria and the result is a totally harmless and green-glowing organism, which has no greatly improved chances of survival. Such genetic change is seen as totally safe.
With the help of synthetic biology it will become possible to change amino acid chains or to build completely new ones. The properties of the resulting protein are not necessarily predictable. Everything is possible: from very useful to very dangerous.
Because of this, we came upon the idea of pointing out the lack of rules and guidelines for risk assessment in this area and the resulting dangers. If the expected potential is made real and the projected boom in synthetic biology comes, every consumer would be confronted with this topic. Only at that point will it become impossible to deal with this problem, but we believe the earlier people start thinking about these topics, the better.
While other nations are already arduously developing this technology –the US is setting the pace – Austria is on the sidelines. The negative national opinion of genetic engineering being passed on to synthetic biology is not the least of the reasons for this.
A goal of this project is also to create incentives to discuss the important basic security and ethical questions surrounding this technology.
What would a project be if one didn’t go into the lab and research and test the discussed techniques themselves? While researching this topic, we kept stumbling upon the Max-Planck-Institute (MPI) for Biochemistry in Martinsried, which has already been dealing intensively with synthetic biology. With the intent of conducting experiments in the school laboratory in cooperation with the MPI, we turned to Dr. Nediljko Budisa. (He was the one who inserted non-natural amino acids into green fluorescent proteins to create a golden synthetic glowing protein.)
He was excited by our interest and drive and agreed right away to create synthetic enzymes with us. This made us work even harder – we would be working with and learning from the pros.