Synthetic Biology: A New Weapon in Our War Against Infectious Diseases

Professor, J. Craig Venter Institute


Prior to the modern age, infectious diseases were the principal cause of human morbidity and mortality. The invention and widespread use of vaccines and antibiotics, along with advances in public health, sanitation, and nutrition, expanded human lifespan. Nevertheless, a variety of recent changes in society have increased the infectious disease burden globally. Although the discovery of new antibiotics has become more difficult, and the cost and time to licensure of new vaccines has increased, advances in biology offer possibilities for mitigating infectious diseases. Synthetic biology is a new field that engages in the design and assembly of genes and chromosomes from chemically synthesized DNA to create cells with properties unobtainable by conventional methods. It is already providing new ways to produce antibiotics and vaccines. Future advances in methods for DNA synthesis will make experimentation using synthetic bacteria and viruses less expensive and faster. This technology will enable the creation of vaccines based on rationally designed bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately, this technology could also enable bioterrorism. Recent construction of a bacterial cell with a synthetic genome showed that it currently would be too difficult for bioterrorists to synthesize bacterial pathogens; however, the use of synthetic biology to construct viruses is vastly easier. Still, the potential benefits of synthetic biology far outweigh the risks.