Synthetic biology in the pursuit of low-cost, effective, anti-malarial drugs
Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells or the redesign of existing biological systems. Synthetic biology builds on the advances in molecular, cell, and systems biology and seeks to transform biology in the same way that synthesis transformed chemistry and integrated circuit design transformed computing. The element that distinguishes synthetic biology from traditional molecular and cellular biology is the focus on the design and construction of core components (parts of enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, etc.) that can be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria, and the assembly of these smaller parts and devices into larger integrated systems that solve specific problems. Just as engineers now design integrated circuits based on the known physical properties of materials and then fabricate functioning circuits and entire processors (with relatively high reliability), synthetic biologists will soon design and build engineered biological systems.
We are using synthetic biology to create inexpensive, effective, anti-malarial drugs. Currently, malaria infects 300-500 million people and causes 1-2 million deaths each year, primarily children in Africa and Asia. One of the principal obstacles to addressing this global health threat is a lack of effective, affordable drugs. The chloroquine-based drugs that were used widely in the past have lost effectiveness because the Plasmodium parasite which causes malaria has become resistant to them. The faster-acting, more effective artemisinin-based drugs – as currently produced from plant sources – are too expensive for large-scale use in the countries where they are needed most. The development of this technology will eventually reduce the cost of artemisinin-based combination therapies significantly below their current price. To reduce the cost of these drugs and make them more widely available, we have used synthetic biology to engineer microorganisms to produce artemisinin from renewable resources. I will describe the process by which we engineered production of this important drug and the prospects for translating this research to people most in need of the drug.
Jay Keasling received his B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from the University of Nebraska in 1986; his Ph. D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1991; and did post-doctoral work in Biochemistry at Stanford University from 1991-1992. Keasling joined the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley as an assistant professor in 1992, where he is currently professor. Keasling is also a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Berkeley, a faculty scientist and Director of the Physical Biosciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Director of the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology. Dr. Keasling's research focuses on engineering microorganisms for environmentally friendly synthesis of small molecules or degradation of environmental contaminants. Keasling's laboratory has engineered bacteria and yeast to produce polymers and a precursor to the anti-malarial drug artemisinin and soil microorganisms to accumulate uranium and to degrade nerve agents.
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