Drew Endy

Drew Endy

Drew Endy is a forty- something Engineer. He has earned degrees in Civil, Environmental and Biochemical Engineering and today he is a faculty of the prestigious Stanford University. So, what else is new?  one might ask. Well, what is new is that his passion for building things is not limited to the sterile world of machines and electronic parts alone. Drew Andy wants to get down and dirty with Biology! “I build things, that’s what I do”, says this self- effacing man who has become the face of one of the newest kids on the technology block; Synthetic Biology. And what is this Synthetic Biology?

Wikipedia defines Synthetic Biology as follows: Synthetic biology is a new area of biological research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build (“synthesize”) novel biological functions and systems. A more technical definition states, “Synthetic biology refers to both:

  • The design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world  &,
  • The re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems”.1

To make matters simple, Synthetic Biology aims to use the components of nature as building blocks to build hitherto non-existent systems. So, how is this approach supposed to be different from the current field of Genetic Engineering? Well, in the latter, scientists cut and chop pieces of DNA, the fundamental molecule of information in living systems, from different organisms and paste them together. The aim of this is to improve the existing system by augmentation with a desirable trait from another DNA molecule. So, we have the easily cultivable E. coli cell spliced with genes producing Human Insulin yielding virtual factories of this much-needed molecule. Or we have crop plants spliced with genes to increase their tolerance to salt or to improve their yield or size of the grain, all efforts to improve the existing quality of the plant.

On the other hand what does Synthetic Biology aim at? Synthetic Biology looks at the cutting pasting mechanism of Genetic Engineering as important but extremely slow and tedious. What if we changed our perspective and looked at nature differently? Lets look at all living systems as a warehouse of parts! It’s like one giant Lego set. Different molecules of DNA and enzymes and cellular components all mixed up and ready-to-use! What would be the reaction of a child to a colorful set of molded plastic bricks in all shapes and sizes? It would get down and start building right? Well, the same is with the new breed of Synthetic Biologists! They look at all the molecules around them and want to disassemble and reassemble them. Not just ‘improving’ existing cellular systems but creating entirely new ones! Synthetic Biology wants to write a novel genetic code, either combining gene sequences from a wide range of diverse life-forms, or writing up novel codes in the lab (creating artificial genes/ genomes) and then stitching them all up into a new genome. If this genome is inserted into a living cell, it will produce proteins and products probably never produced in nature before.

In a wonderfully witty analogy, Endy says, “If you want to build a bookcase, you can find a nice tree, chop it down, mill it, sand the wood and hammer in some nails. Or, you could program the DNA in the tree so that it grows into a bookshelf.”

Winner of the International Modelling Award- The Blue Crystal (iGEM, 2008)

Winner of the International Modelling Award- The Blue Crystal (iGEM, 2008)

So is this all mere conjecture or is there a viable science somewhere? Well, the iGEM competition is the ultimate test of this technology! iGEM stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition. This is an annual week-long Synthetic Biology jamboree organized by the prestigious MIT (Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology). Teams from Synthetic Biology and engineering departments from different Universities participate in an effort to present novel projects dealing with the complete redesigning of existing biological systems. For example in this year’s list was a project that essentially revolved around re-engineering cells from an electric eel to create an alternative energy source!

Just to give you an idea of how serious these projects really are, I will take the libert of quoting from the team website of the University of Aberdeen about the project presented at iGEM in 2009. This is from what they call the “lay person Summary”. They say, “this synthetic biology project will engineer a bacterium from the human gut, Escherichia coli, to detect and fix leaking pipes. Engineered E. coli will detect leaks by homing in on a chemical signal released at the leak site. As the bacteria migrate towards the leak, they will synthesise two proteins, one on the outside of the cell, the other inside, which represent the two components of biological, protein glue. The adhesive is only activated when the two components mix. The E. coli cells will be engineered to burst at the leak site, mixing the two glue components and creating a sticky protein plug to repair the pipe.” The pipes in question are water pipes, and they are seeking to address the issue of water wastage through leaky pipes in England. For a peek into the entire project presentation please click here.

The ideas almost take your breath away. Here is a brand new dimension to biology. Can we really create such marvel machines? Well, the young scientists working in the field of Synthetic Biology certainly seem to think so. In an interview to the magazine H+ , Endy speaks with the erudition and humility typical of him. He says in response to how close we are to creating biological machines, “I think what we’re trying to do is get better at engineering biology. We’re looking to past examples, where, in other types of engineering, people have developed improved capabilities for engineering different types of material such as metals, silicon, and so forth. We’re adapting those lessons to the substrate of biology and seeing which of them might be useful. I think it’s an area of research — which is important to emphasize — because what it means practically is that it’s not at all obvious that the lessons from computer engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or civil engineering will directly translate and apply to the substrate of life. They inform us and provide points of departure. It would also be surprising if they didn’t have something to add as well. So, the work of synthetic biology, which as a field in its modern form is only about five-years-old, is an opportunity to work on improving the process of designing, constructing, measuring, testing, debugging, and reworking living components — as well as living systems — to see if we can improve how we work with them and partner with them to do different things. I don’t think it’s at all imminent that we are going to be designing and building new life forms from whole cloth. What’s imminent are many opportunities to get better at the process of engineering living systems, starting from the ones that already exist, and seeing what comes next.” 2

BioBricks Standard Assembly

BioBricks Standard Assembly

With a view to open up the access to young researchers across the world who would want to participate in iGEM but do not resources to build their own base materials, Endy has helped to start a kind of repository of parts of biological systems that can be used to construct brand-new cellular systems. These parts are made available under the name of BioBricks. Available at the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, which was founded in the year 2003, at the MIT, it has now become an unsurpassed collection of ‘parts’ to be used in making cellular machines. A glance at the official page gives you the illusion of being in a magic shop, with tantalizing trick gadgets at every corner. There is a ‘Catalogue of Parts and Devices’ button that offers a range of preset tools such as Ribosome binding sites, protein domains, Promoters and so on. Each of these gene sequences are put into plasmid vectors and inserted into common lab cultures of bacteria. These are then provided to the requester as an agar slant culture. One then simply needs to maintain the culture and extract the required part as and when necessary. How cool is that huh? The site works like an open resource platform where members of teams participating in iGEM can not only request for existing parts (from the catalogues) but also for ones that don’t, ostensibly to try and improve the collection by adding to it based on the unique demands of their visitors. Also if you have a construct that you want to add to their repertoire, you can submit parts to them as well. In the span of the last five years, the collection has grown into a unique and unmatched resource.

Drew Endy & The Comic Strip!

Drew Endy & The Comic Strip!

Drew Endy has taken his passion a step further. In an attempt to demystify the science of Synthetic Biology, he has started his own unique comic strip called “Adventures in Synthetic Biology”.3 The central character is a young scientist in a Synthetic Biology lab and the reader can follow his adventures into this gloriously magical field with delight. The strip made it to the cover of the prestigious Nature magazine this year.

I think that this is the most exciting thing I have read about in terms of cutting edge technologies in the recent times. Can we build our dream machines and will we really sort out our problems or will create Frankensteins? As with every new technology that will challenge traditional barriers, this one has aroused mistrust and fears as well. Creating new forms of life for solving problems ingeniously is one thing. But do we have systems in place in case these organisms started posing a threat?  What if this technology can be used to recreate ghosts of the past, deadly weapons of terror resurrected from their icy graves; Ebola and smallpox in the hands of Bioterrorists? Or if inadvertently we create monsters of a new kind and are unable to control them? In the words of Endy himself, “If you go into the dictionary and you just think about what those two words mean – construction or creation – creation implies that you’re a God. You have unlimited power. You have an ability to manipulate the universe and matter that’s unlimited. You don’t have a budget. You’re infinitely powerful. You have a perfect understanding. You’re all-knowing. That’s not who I am. That’s not who we are as people, as human beings. We have a budget, we have a very crude understanding of how the universe works, we have a limited ability to change and manipulate materials”.4

The questions are many and need to be answered carefully. This field offers a wonderful opportunity to harness the living world and to piggyback on the strength of nature. The challenge is will we emerge victorious or will we self-destruct? Well, I personally feel, more conscientious scientists like Endy, and less politics will surely see us through. Till then lets lose ourselves in the magic of Synthetic Biology ! !


  1. http://syntheticbiology.org/FAQ.html
  2. http://hplusmagazine.com/articles/bio/adventures-synthetic-biology
  3. http://www.nature.com/nature/comics/syntheticbiologycomic/index.html
  4. http://www.earthsky.org/interviewpost/human-world/drew-endy-uses-tools-of-synthetic-biology-to-construct-new-genetic-material
  5. http://openwetware.org/wiki/The_BioBricks_Foundation:Standards/Technical/Formats
  6. http://partsregistry.org/Main_Page

Image Credits :

1 Drew Endy: esquire.com

2. Drew Endy and the comic strip: spectrum.mit.edu

3. The Blue Crystal: www.acrc.bris.ac.uk/news.htm

4. BioBricks Standard Assembly: partsregistry.org/Assembly:Standard_assembly