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Latest update : 2013-10-02

Synthetic biology: Creating life from scratch

A pioneering science is offering researchers the possibility to design and engineer new forms of life on a made-to-order basis. This week we head to the United Kingdom to explore the boundless potential of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology can be likened to a game of Lego with a biological twist, where scientists build organisms from scratch to tackle challenges in the domains of energy, health or technology. Some have described the field as "genetic engineering on steroids".

If we consider that genetic modification involves cutting a DNA sequence from an organism and splicing it into another, then synthetic biology goes much further.

This new way of doing science means treating DNA sequences as spare parts which can be arranged in millions of different ways, going well beyond the genes found in nature. This artificial DNA can be used to produce everything from medicine to fuels to textiles. The only limit is our imagination.

But critics are questioning whether mankind is prepared for the consequences of this unparalleled control over nature. 

By Mairead DUNDAS , Marina BERTSCH , Juliette LACHARNAY , Emilie COCHAUD

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