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Speaker Spotlight: Dr Kim Liu

In his event, Breaking the rules of protein synthesis in living systems (7:30pm-8:45pm on Friday 1 April), synthetic biologist Dr Kim Liu talks about the rules of protein synthesis and how to break and rewrite these rules to endow living systems with abilities that are new even to nature.

Cambridge Festival: What rules are you breaking, and why?

Kim Liu: Living systems produce thousands of different proteins following a very precise set of instructions that form the genetic code. This code is universal – it is exactly the same in almost all living things, from bacteria to humans. We’re looking to break and re-write these instructions (‘genetic recoding’) to allow living systems to produce unique proteins and substances for functions that nature otherwise could not access.

CF: What are the new functions that could occur?

KL: Consider the vast diversity that is seen throughout the kingdoms of life – all of this starts from a genetic code that uses only 20 chemical building blocks. Genetic recoding allows us to use more building blocks – imagine having another 20 different blocks to choose from! One relatively simple example is producing proteins to replicate human-invented chemical reactions, so that we can more cheaply and efficiently synthesise drugs and materials.

CF: Could genetic recoding be used in healthcare?

KL: In principle, one can dream about designing proteins with new building blocks that can assist with regeneration, strengthen the immune system, or resist cancer. In reality however, we are some generations away from being able to enact these ideas effectively in real patients. There is potentially a lot of untapped potential in the original genetic code that should be explored first.

CF: Will genetic recoding affect evolution?

KL: Natural evolution would not be affected, as genetic recoding processes currently require a lot of human oversight which would be unlikely to exist in a natural ecosystem. We are however quite interested in artificial evolution processes that incorporate genetic recoding – this may be an essential step to optimising or discovering new abilities.

CF: Are there ethical implications associated with breaking these rules? 

KL: All advanced genetic engineering technologies carry important ethical considerations, and it is essential that both scientists and policy makers seriously consider these questions in advance of a technology’s maturity. Genetic recoding however does not intrinsically carry further ethical implications than other methods of genetic manipulation. For materials synthesis in simple organisms such as bacteria, ethical considerations mostly involve ensuring the genetic manipulations are confined to the laboratory environment. For usage in humans to confer genetic advantages, this discussion becomes far more complex – we need to consider factors such as safety, choice, and accessibility in great detail.