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The Implications of Synthetic Biology

03/21/2006 6:00 PM Museum
Andrew (Drew) Endy, Cabot Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering

Description: There's no mistaking Drew Endy's profession: "I like to make things -- that's what I do." From his engineer's perspective, the slow and painful methods of bioengineering demand a solution. Endy hopes to refine the tools necessary to move the field forward. "We're going from looking at the living world as only coming from nature, to a subset of the living world being produced by engineers who design and build hopefully useful living artifacts according to our specifications," says Endy.

Thirty years ago, scientists figured out how to use enzymes to cut and paste genetic material, leading to recombinant DNA technology. But the techniques involved are painfully slow, requiring very specific physical materials and "know"how via the guild"like structure of biology." Endy points to methods coming on line that will make it easier to design and build biological systems.

One is DNA synthesis, in which a machine fed information and sugars generates a physical piece of DNA. It reminds Endy of the "matter compilers" seen on Star Trek, where "food materializes from a cubby in the wall." This technique will allow the economical production of long sequences of DNA. Another key ingredient in bioengineering will be the development of standards for making and measuring DNA, in the same way that machining hardware came to be governed by common standards in the 19th century. Endy also suggests that biotechnology will be increasingly informed by useful abstraction, so that scientists will manipulate raw materials less and refined and repackaged materials more, in order to make new things simply and more reliably. These advances will also enable bioengineers to "be experts in our own domains without having to be masters of everything."

But as bioengineering becomes easier, and "people start to engineer biology," we'll need to worry about new issues, says Endy: Will people synthesize pathogens from scratch? Will groups pool knowledge legally? Will there be accreditation and oversight of those who create biological systems?

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About the Speaker(s): Drew Endy earned degrees in civil, environmental, and biochemical engineering at Lehigh and Dartmouth. He studied genetics & microbiology as a postdoc at U.T. Austin and U.W. Madison. From 1998 through 2001 he helped to start the Molecular Sciences Institute, an independent not"for"profit biological research lab in Berkeley, CA. In 2002, Endy started a group as a fellow in the Department of Biology and the Biological Engineering Division at MIT. He joined the MIT faculty in 2004. Endy co"founded the MIT Synthetic Biology working group and the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, and organized the First International Conference on Synthetic Biology. With colleagues he taught the 2003 and 2004 MIT Synthetic Biology labs that led to the organization of iGEM, the international Genetically Engineered Machine competiton. In 2004 Endy co"founded Codon Devices, Inc., a venture"funded startup that is working to develop next"generation DNA synthesis technology. In 2005 Endy co"founded the BioBricks Foundation, a not"for"profit organization that is working to develop legal and economic strategies needed to support open biotechnology.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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