The good news about synthetic biology

At a time when the ecosystem around us might begin to make its final adjustments before life as we know it ends, our present is not the world we want it to be. Population growth, severe climate change, overpopulation, the effects of food insecurity, the lack of usable, renewable energy — all of these are dire.

So a University of Maryland biologist has found an answer: Synthetic biology, in which biological systems are reprogrammed to replace and enhance parts of their own environment.

Timothy Cummings, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Maryland, points to a world where synthetic biology not only helps to mitigate problems caused by Mother Nature, but also makes us better stewards of that world.

“The combination of science and art is a balancing act, and, whether deliberately or unconsciously, artificial biology attempts to correct problems in nature in a positive way,” Cummings told Washingtonian.

Last September, he found that “clean” cells made with synthetic biology can successfully grow and mature into specialized, disease-fighting cells in the body of an elderly man. And earlier this month, he published findings on synthetic biology-modified strains of plants that can give off electricity that could be harnessed to power the grid, reports Scientific American.

“The common mantra in biology is that in any particular dish, you have 30 to 50 species of microbes, and nature is a magnificent stew,” Cummings said. “While true, only a few of those species represent the totality of organisms in a given dish, and sometimes our top-down best guesses as to what a particular dish will look like will be proven wrong. … These new discoveries show that synthetic biology can provide a selective, objective classification to help biologists make sure they are not wasting genetic resources on a species that is no longer needed.”

Here’s a link to more info about synthetic biology. Here’s a link to the MIT paper.

Meet the Synthetic Gene Scientists

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