A group of MIT engineers wanted to model the biological world. But, damn, some of nature’s designs were complicated! So they started rebuilding from the ground up – and gave birth to synthetic biology.

In January, students at M.I.T. are let off the leash to follow their fancies. The annual monthlong Independent Activities Period is a playground for the mind, offering courses, seminars, and special events devoted to everything from energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy to poetry reading. There’s glassblowing, building spacecraft for mice, and the all-important coolest-stuff-made-of-duct-tape competition. “I wish I didn’t teach an IAP,” says Drew Endy, an assistant professor in biological engineering. “I’d take a whole bunch of the courses.”

But Endy does teach an IAP. This year his class is devoted to building counters – devices that count from, say, 1 to 32. That may not sound like much of a challenge for students at the world’s most prestigious engineering school; in fact, it’s the sort of thing a nerdy middle school kid would solder together. But here’s the rub: The counters his students design won’t be electronic, but biological. They won’t be made of transistors, but DNA. And they won’t be inserted into breadboards, but living bacteria.

While Endy is keen on counters at the moment (they might have practical uses; for example, indicating how many times a given cell has divided since the counter was last reset), they’re just stepping-stones to a new era in biology. Last year, his students programmed bacteria to form polka-dotted colonies. The year before, they designed microorganisms that blinked like Christmas lights. But the real purpose of the course isn’t making a particular biological circuit; it’s figuring out what it takes to make any biological circuit.

Endy is the newest recruit to a cabal of MIT engineers gathered around one of the university’s computer science gurus, Tom Knight. Their aim is to create a field of engineering that will do for biological molecules what electronics has done for electrons. They call it synthetic biology.

“I think this will likely be the most important thing I’ve done,” says Knight, whose track record already includes designing some of the earliest network interfaces, bitmapped displays, and workstations. “We’re at the cusp of some dramatic changes.”

If the notion of hacking DNA sounds like genetic engineering, think again. Genetic engineering generally involves moving a preexisting gene from one organism to another, an activity Endy calls DNA bashing. For all its impressive and profitable results, DNA bashing is hardly creative. Proper engineering, by contrast, means designing what you want to make, analyzing the design to be sure it will work, and then building it from the ground up. And that’s what synthetic biology is about: specifying every bit of DNA that goes into an organism to determine its form and function in a controlled, predictable way, like etching a microprocessor or building a bridge. The goal, as Endy puts it, is nothing less than to “reimplement life in a manner of our choosing.”

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