Peterborough, N.H. -- The ability to engineer artificial biological components, and one day perhaps artificial organisms, puts a new spin on the ongoing debate about artificial life, which has been linked mainly to silicon circuits. It has been argued that when VLSI systems reach a high enough level of complexity, they will essentially be alive in the same sense that biological systems are alive.
A study that is being conducted by a consortium of companies delves into the issue of artificial life in detail, since it is fundamental to defining and classifying different branches of synthetic biology. Loosely defined as the engineering of systems using mechanisms and principles from molecular biology, synthetic biology could have a wide impact on the field of engineering and on society as a whole, according to a report of the study.
The report was written principally by Hubert Bernauer of ATG:Biosynthetics (Feiburg, Germany) for consortium leader Sociedade Portuguesa de Inovação (Baltimore).
The first phase of the study was completed last October. The next phase, which is seeking to identify new research efforts and startups in the field, will be completed this June. Using research papers as a measure of activity in the field, it says that the United States leads such endeavors with 68 percent of all papers written in the world. The European Union comes in second at 24 percent, and Israel and Japan are next with 3 percent each. Most of the work in the United States was performed in California, with Massachusetts coming in second.
Because it's such a new field, the report's authors had to come up with a working definition of exactly what activities should be included in the term "synthetic biology." In doing so, the report may have an impact on the field simply through its attempts to define it.
According to the report, "Synthetic biology is the engineering of biological components and systems that do not exist in nature and the re-engineering of existing biological elements; it is determined on the intentional design of artificial biological systems, rather than on the understanding of natural biology."
MIT's BioBrick project (see www.eetimes.com, article ID: 21800320)--a catalog of standard DNA sequences that code for specific cell functions--is emblematic of the new field. DNA is a digital code that natural systems use to assemble themselves. A recent technical capability that has propelled synthetic biology is the ability to synthesize a strand of DNA reliably from any predetermined digital sequence. Companies providing that service have sprung up, allowing anyone in biomedical research or bioengineering to work with artificial DNA.
Elements for life
Such current computer-related fields as genetic algorithms, autonomous agents, neural networks and artificial intelligence mimic aspects of living systems. But just how close are they to actual living organisms? The gap is not just a matter of complexity, the authors argue; it also critically depends on the relationship between information and the physical system that represents it.
Biologists have identified three critical principles that must be present in any living system: They must be self-creating, self-organizing and self-sustaining. The self-sustaining capability includes the ability to replicate components, process information and steadily consume energy from the environment. While electronic systems are highly adept at information processing, they are not self-replicating except at the software level, and they consume only one type of strictly defined electrical energy. In contrast, biological systems have excelled at self-replication, and their strategies for consuming energy from the environment are extremely varied.