Synthetic biology – the next big thing

Prof. Joseph Jacobson, a leading physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is not only the inventor of e-ink but also a mover in creating artificial DNA to eventually cure diseases.

July 18, 2015 23:31

PROF. JOSEPH JACOBSON. (photo credit: MIT)

Everybody knows what the words “synthetic” and “biology” mean, but when you put them together, the phrase “synthetic biology” means nothing to all but a handful of Israeli scientists.

Just as semiconductors were developed as early as the late 19th century, “plastics” were declared the “next big thing” 50 years ago and nanotechnology two decades ago, synthetic biology is predicted to have a massive impact on our lives in the repair of genetic and other diseases, changing energy sources and for other uses that today can hardly be imagined.

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Israel is “a few years behind the US in synthetic biology but is gaining quickly,” says Prof. Joseph Jacobson, head of the Molecular Machines group at the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab – the developer of e-ink used in Kindle and other electronic readers who is now a significant mover in the field of synthetic biology.

An observant Jew who just finished a year’s sabbatical at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science and Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University, Jacobson visits Israel with his family every year.

Among his friends is Weizmann crystallographer Prof. Ada Yonath, who in 2009 shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discoveries on the structure and function of the ribosome – becoming the first Israeli woman (among 10 Israeli Nobel laureates) to win the Nobel Prize and the first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. “We hosted Ada at MIT,” he recalled.

Jacobson is also familiar with the faculty and administration of the Jerusalem College of Technology (Lev Academic College) after meeting some of them at Shabbat services near the apartment he lived in during a visit seven years ago.

Recently he gave a lecture to the religious student body on synthetic biology. “Israel will certainly make significant contributions both in the science and medical ethics regarding synthetic biology,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview before packing up and returning to Newton, Massachusetts. “There definitely will be Israeli leaders in synthetic biology. Many young Israeli researchers have spent time as post-docs in the US, so they learned about the subject there and will pursue it when they come home,” he said.

“I’ve been very impressed by the level of science in Israel, not only at Weizmann and Bar Ilan but also at all Israeli universities and at Migal, the small biological institute on the Golan. MIT is at the forefront in many fields, and you’d think researchers there have heard of most ideas, but people at this small Israeli institute tosses around out-of-the-box ideas.”

HE HAD a role model at home for going into science. “My father is a physician who worked as a researcher at the US National Institutes of Health, living in Bethesda, Maryland. Now he is a psychiatrist and has done research in the field of endocrinology. My mother plays the oboe, and she then became an attorney.”

He had been interested in science from an early age. “There is a wonderful science museum in Boston for which my mother signed me up. I was always doing experiments,” he recalled.

The MIT physicist and his wife have three children aged 12, 16 and 19. “Our daughter Gabriella, who is the middle, between boys. “is seriously studying biotechnology,” Jacobson said. The MIT scientist earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Brown University, his doctorate in the same field at MIT and did his post-doctoral work at Stanford University in experimental and theoretical nonlinear non-local quantum systems. While at Stanford, he set the world record for the shortest pulse ever generated by a laser (in optical cycles).

He received the 2000 Gutenberg prize. In 2001, he received a Discovery magazine award for technological innovation. The following year, he won a National Inventors Hall of Fame Collegiate Inventors Award.

Way back in 1997, Jacobson was named by MIT’s Technology Review as one of the TR100, one of the most influential inventors under the age of 35 for creating nanoparticle-based ink that can print on a flexible computer processor using a conventional inkjet printer. Jacobson is the founder of several companies including E Ink Corporation, Gen9, Inc. and Kovio.

Jacobson first had the idea for the e-book in 1993 when he was working on his postdoctoral research in quantum mechanics. He filed the original patent in 1996 for “Electronic book with multiple page displays.” This is the “electronic paper” that made the Kindle and similar e-readers feasible for the mass market.

Kindles and other basic e-readers cost less than $80 and the price for more expensive ones is a little higher than that. “They weigh only about 180 grams, with the book, magazine or article content purchased online. Some 50 million electronic readers have been sold. Along with Kindle, there are about 10 different brands, all using our patented e-ink technology as the standard.”

E-readers have a look like ink in paper, not like text on a computer screen, he explained. “They can be read in bright sunlight; another advantage is that the handheld devices can go six weeks without recharging.”

Jacobson said that he and his MIT media team created – with the Motorola company a very low-cost cellphone for use in developing countries such as India called Motophone. “It is very thin and light with a screen that is easy to read.” Populations that never had access to a landline phone now can buy a smartphone to communicate with the world, he said. “The images are very visible even in sunlight.”

Most e-books use e-ink, and most of them are in black and white. Color ones are available, but for technical reasons, because the screen is reflective, the colors are not as bright as LCD (liquid crystal display, which has a light source behind the screen) or O-LED (an organic, light-emitting diode in which the electroluminescent layer is a film of organic compound that emits light in response to an electric current). E-ink, continued Jacobson, “is just as reflective as them, but it uses ambient light [in the room or outdoors],” he said.

Jacobson and his team were thinking that “it would be nice to have a small, thin book in a little package that can be carried easily and very cheap. It would be a boon for schoolchildren who would not have to carry along heavy backpacks.

Now that screens are made from plastic, not glass, they are not breakable when dropped, and they don’t have to be charged often.”

Thanks to e-ink, “Americans and others read less and less on paper. We can see the day – and the numbers bear this out – that newspapers won’t be printed on paper. But Israel is several years behind the US on this, and it may always remain behind. The Jews – observant ones – may be the last people in the world to read on paper. Considering the inability to use electronics on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.”

The MIT scientists welcomes the widespread use of e-ink, but he wonders whether eliminating printed books could lead to differences in the way in which information is learned. “A book like a textbook that you know well allows you to find information quickly. It’s three dimensional and is recognized as so by the brain’s spatial memory. But e-readers use two dimensions, and you lose something.

The question is if one learns differently on two-dimensional electronic devices. People, especially the young, are getting used to it, though.”

Other possible applications for e-ink include shelf labels in supermarkets that provide updated prices per kilo and can be updated automatically. He noted that there will also be interior design uses such as walls covered with e-ink.

Jacobson is currently working on synthetic biology. Synthetic biology, he explains, involves “programming microorganisms to perform some new functions. Genes are made out of DNA; synthetic biology involves inserting synthetic genes that might not have existed before into yeast and reprogramming them to make a new chemistry or things not made naturally by biology. Each gene codes for an enzyme. One can program a new set of enzymes and convert them to intermediate products. If you go through five or even 15 steps, you can get a final product – a polymer, a new drug – creating a chemical factory inside a cell.

This is much better than nanotechnology, because in synthetic biology, we get down to molecular size.”

Nano, he continued, has been much more difficult, because new tools had to be invented to do it. Very little in the field was made by nature, so what you can do is limited. Biology – and thus synthetic biology – has a large set of powerful tools to manipulate mater at the atomic scale in a very precise way.

The field was launched by groups of people doing metabolic engineering. “Now we can do synthetic DNA sequencing, find parts from different organisms and recode them to insert a bacterium inside.

The physicist said that the new technology could be used to cure diseases, “which appear without the intervention of man. We will eventually be able to fight diseases like avian flu, HIV/AIDS, Ebola and malaria, for example, by reprogramming bacteria so their enzymes are no longer effective in causing disease. So many antibiotics are becoming ineffective because of the bacteria’s resistance to them. There are enzymes that disable the antibiotic molecules, so one needs to re-engineer them and create a virus to disable the enzyme. Antibiotics will then work much better, he explained. “I think we will start to get meaningful results in the field soon, and there will be disease treatments in the next five to 10 years.”

Asked to compare synthetic biology to cloning, such as the first cloned creature – Dolly the Sheep – Jacobson noted that “there as very little or no engineering in Dolly. Here, there is a lot of engineering, designing new circuits made out of synthetic genes – not silicon. We can create tremendous variety. If there is a sudden epidemic such as the Spanish flu in 1919 that killed many millions of people, scientists would have to fight it quickly.

If they can synthesize genes that could serve as a vaccine, they can deal with both natural and man-made biological entities, including those that might be created by terrorists and have to be overcome in a hurry.”

Companies that synthesize DNA always check against a computer database to make sure it is not coding for a disease agent. There are US Federal guidelines for what synthetic genes you may make.”

The same technology could be used to work on inanimate objects, such as enzymes that drive chemical reactions. Several years ago, there was much more emphasis on using synthetic biology to replace oil, who price has gone down, so there is less interest, but the field could be promising.

Finally, Jacobson gives the credit to Chaim Weizmann – who was a biochemist in Britain before he became Israel’s first president – for being the “father of synthetic biology.” Weizmann figured out a way to use a living organism called Clostridium acetobutylicum to produce large amounts of acetone, which was used to make cordite explosives and was of great importance for the British war industry during World War I. “He was way ahead of his time in engineering microorganisms.”

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