Scientists want to alter biology to remove bad things and make good things better

Scientists want to alter biology to remove bad things and make good things better

Wool
Scientist want to use the new science to allow cotton to mimic the good properties of the synthetics like being more stretchy, crease-proof and waterproof.

Scientist want to use the new science to allow cotton to mimic the good properties of the synthetics like being more stretchy, crease-proof and waterproof.

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If it sounds like something from the realms of science fiction, that's because it was.

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If it sounds like something from the realms of science fiction, that's because it was.

Synthetic biology.

It's where scientists propose to genetically alter organisms to make them better or bigger in some way.

The CSIRO has already floated the idea with 8037 Australians who had "moderate to high" enthusiasm depending on what scientists want to do.

Agriculture is already mostly accepting of such science, look at the genetically modified grains crops which caused such a commotion in the past 30 years.

But then South Australia only approved the growing of GM crops from this year.

Now the CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, wants to dip its toes into the emerging field of synthetic biology as well.

The organisation claims synthetic biology "could address some of the greatest challenges facing our country" in areas such as manufacturing, human health, agriculture and environmental conservation.

It says synthetic biology could be used to manage invasive pest species to improve biodiversity, reduce pollution in waterways, or reduce mosquito-borne diseases.

Synthetic biology involves applying engineering principles to modify and redesign biological systems and living organisms, and includes genetic engineering and gene editing.

The CSIRO wondered whether Australians were ready for it yet.

CSIRO project lead Dr Aditi Mankad said synthetic biology had a diverse range of applications and it was important the developing technologies are informed by societal views.

"Synthetic biology can help researchers develop novel tools to address many national challenges. But scientists and other stakeholders know very little about how Australians feel towards the novel genetic solutions offered by synthetic biology," Dr Mankad said.

"We found that support for the development of these technologies as potential solutions for significant challenges was moderate to high overall, but support was also conditional on some unique issues for each case study," Dr Mankad said.

One of the case studies examined how CSIRO is using synthetic biology to prevent mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

Synthetic biology could be used to remove or change genes so mosquitos can no longer carry a particular harmful virus.

Another example was CSIRO's use of synthetic biology to clean up polluted waterways.

"Many participants were also keen to know more about the possible risks to humans, animals and the environment, and more about regulation and control of the technology," Dr Mankad said.

One proposed CSIRO project involves the gene editing of disease-susceptible mosquitoes to reduce mosquito-borne diseases.

One proposed CSIRO project involves the gene editing of disease-susceptible mosquitoes to reduce mosquito-borne diseases.

Teams at CSIRO are already developing seven synthetic biology applications:

  • Gene marking of male chickens to improve practices in the egg-laying industry
  • Changing the properties of natural fibres to reduce pollution generated by synthetic fibres
  • Protecting endangered species by increasing species' genetic diversity
  • Managing invasive pest species to improve biodiversity
  • Reducing pollution in waterways using bio-engineered pseudo-organisms
  • Gene editing of disease-susceptible mosquitoes to reduce mosquito-borne diseases
  • Genetically engineering resilient coral to restore the Great Barrier Reef.

Case studies can be found here.

Australian Community Media questioned the CSIRO on its plans for "natural fibres" which it says is directed at cotton and not sheep wool at the moment.

"There are many applications for synthetic biology already (in agriculture, environment, health and manufacturing) and there are likely to be even more in the future as the technologies emerge," a CSIRO spokeswoman said.

The proposal for cotton is to use DNA to give plants the ability to produce natural fibres with different properties.

For instance synthetic biology could using gene editing and genetic engineering to help natural fibres mimic the properties of petroleum based fibres, or provide different properties not currently used - like being more stretchy, crease-proof or waterproof.

The CSIRO says synthetic biology would give Australia a new weapon to fight off invasive pests.

"Synthetic biology has the potential to modify a pest species' genes so that offspring are infertile or limited to a single sex (e.g. male-only offspring) - reducing opportunities to reproduce," CSIRO said.

"Over time, this would naturally reduce the population size of future pest generations and potentially limit the impacts of invasive animals on the Australian environment."

Or the plans to save the Australian chicken industry the age-old problem of identifying males before they hatch.

"In the egg-laying industry, male chicks are not sustainable to grow for meat production.

"After hatching, male chicks are identified and then humanely culled when they are around one day old.

"Synthetic biology techniques enable scientists to place a marker gene specifically on the male chromosome (meaning only male eggs will have it). The marker gene produces a special protein that is visible when illuminated by a light.

"This means male chicks can be identified before the eggs hatch. These male eggs can then be removed from the food production system (along with the gene marker) without the need for culling."

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