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Home » Life but not Alive: Kate Adamala at TEDxBeaconStreet (Full Transcript)

Life but not Alive: Kate Adamala at TEDxBeaconStreet (Full Transcript)

Kate Adamala – TRANSCRIPT

Hey everyone, I would like to talk to you today about engineering biology. And we start with a cell.

If you look around the room. Look around. Everyone you see, yourself included, is made of cells, and yet, despite truly hundreds of years of research, we don’t know exactly how cells work and what are they made of. We do know that they are incredibly complex. We’ve sequenced a lot of different genomes and we made inventories of different proteins, but we don’t know exactly how every gene and every protein works.

We don’t even have a complete, chemical ingredient list of a cell. So, all of that makes studying and modifying biology really hard. It’s like working on an engine without the blueprints. So, engineers are used to dealing with problems like that. They take things apart and put it back together, reshuffling the parts.

Can we do something like that with a biological system? We can and we do. We build synthetic minimal cells. They are biological reactors that have some, but not all properties of a cell. They’re made of biological parts, but they are designed and put together in the lab, so we know exactly what’s inside them. Synthetic life is like life made of jigsaw puzzles, we can mix and match elements of different organisms to make a synthetic cell with a very specific purpose.

Now, why would we want to do that? Well, we work with synthetic cells for all the same reasons we do any biology research. We want to study life, to understand it better. We want to build new biological structures. We want to make better drugs, we want to study the history of life in the universe, and we want to be able to one day teleport biology. And for all of those applications, synthetic cells offer certain advantages over working with live cells.

For one, working with cells is time-consuming, expensive and really hard. Synthetic cells are much cheaper and easier to work with. Synthetic cells are not alive, so there is no bio-safety and bio-containment considerations, and experiments with synthetic cells are much faster to iterate, because those cells are made, you don’t have to wait for them to grow. So, if any of you have ever made beer, or cheese, or bread, you might think that convincing microorganisms to do things for us is really easy. Unfortunately, that is not the case, when what you want to make is not a natural product of a cell metabolism.

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