Synthetic biology was born a little more than a decade ago, an offshoot of traditional genetic engineering but distinct in its ambitions, precision and mind-set. Instead of randomly tweaking the genetic blueprints of living organisms and then working backward to identify a cell with a desirable trait, the new field offered the power of designing and building cells with novel functions. Its pioneers dreamed of making armies of organisms that could produce alternative fuels, churn out drugs to battle disease or fill every stomach on the planet by squeezing more food out of each crop acre.
Now, synthetic biologists have laid the groundwork for that radical new future, by building biology’s version of Silicon Valley. One research team has created a new and more complex set of biological building blocks that snap together like Legos, bringing large-scale production of engineered organisms closer to reality. Other scientists have hooked those parts up in a complex living analog of an electrical circuit and programmed it, much like programming a computer. Researchers are now writing code to make cells do things never before thought possible, like hunt down and kill cancer cells.