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How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves

George Church and Ed Regis

Synthetic biology - selectively altering the genes of organisms to make them do new things. One of the first was a microbe which turned corn sugar into PCB plastic polymer - ie plastic made from plants. Process similar to way beer fermented from hops, in which microbes (yeast cells) act on malt and hops to produce ethanol.

'Handedness' in which one set of molecules is mirror image of other. In nature, existing molecules usually all one ('left' or 'right') handed. Thalidomide was made chemically and both hands equally produced. It transpired that one hand cures morning sickness while the other hand causes severe birth defects.

Cells are sub-optimal - they have accumulated genes which are not functionally essential, and in some cases even slowing growth. Craig Ventor's lab deleted genes of a microbe Mycoplasma genitalium which has the fewest number of genes - 482 protein-coding genes. Found that 100 of the genes could be turned off without disrupting the functioning of the organism. (Not all at once - possible that some deletions could be harmful in combination, or that some are needed in extreme environments)

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