Synthetic biologists write code. But when their code is compiled, it doesn’t become an app. It becomes, or at least changes, life.
“It’s quite literally the same thing [as lines of code], once we get to the point where it’s all electronic,” J. Christopher Anderson, a synthetic biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, tells me. “It’s a code that is A-T-C-Gs instead of 0s and 1s.”
Synthetic biology, the newer, cooler branch of genetic engineering, has gained a lot of attention in recent years because of its innovative take on biology, as well as for its similarities with the hugely successful software industry — programs to automate DNA sequencing used to write new genetic code — but in roughly a decade of existence, the field hasn’t achieved much of what it promises. Engineered microbes that produce sustainable fuels or turn carbon dioxide into plastic, bacteria that makes blood or antimalarial drugs, and organisms designed to attack cancer cells are just a handful of the potential applications from the biologically generated software.