What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology aims to make biology easier to engineer. Synthetic biology is the convergence of advances in chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering that enables us to go from idea to product faster, cheaper, and with greater precision than ever before. It can be thought of as a biology-based “toolkit” that uses abstraction, standardization, and automated construction to change how we build biological systems and expand the range of possible products. A community of experts across many disciplines is coming together to create these new foundations for many industries, including medicine, energy and the environment.

What is synthetic biology? In the above video, former Synberc graduate student Kathryn Hart shows what a synthetic biology lab looks like and provides a high-level explanation of the field. She describes how synthetic biology was used to produce a malaria drug, and shares some of the broader ethical and social aspects that synthetic biologists must consider in their work.

Synthetic biology explained
Written, animated and directed by James Hutson, Bridge8.
From selective breeding to genetic modification, our understanding of biology is now merging with the principles of engineering to bring us synthetic biology.

Drew Endy defines synthetic biology
Drew Endy offers his thoughts on the definition of the field.

Synthetic biology desmystified
A PBS NewsHour segment from Nov 2009 that explores synthetic biology through the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

Here are also a number of TED Talks on synthetic biology.

A long definition of synthetic biology:

Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells or the redesign of existing biological systems. Synthetic biology builds on the advances in molecular, cell, and systems biology and seeks to transform biology in the same way that synthesis transformed chemistry and integrated circuit design transformed computing. The element that distinguishes synthetic biology from traditional molecular and cellular biology is the focus on the design and construction of core components (parts of enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, etc.) that can be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria, and the assembly of these smaller parts and devices into larger integrated systems to solve specific problems. Just as engineers now design integrated circuits based on the known physical properties of materials and then fabricate functioning circuits and entire processors (with relatively high reliability), synthetic biologists will soon design and build engineered biological systems. Unlike many other areas of engineering, biology is incredibly non-linear and less predictable, and there is less knowledge of the parts and how they interact. Hence, the overwhelming physical details of natural biology (gene sequences, protein properties, biological systems) must be organized and recast via a set of design rules that hide information and manage complexity, thereby enabling the engineering of many-component integrated biological systems. It is only when this is accomplished that designs of significant scale will be possible.

Synthetic biology arose from four different intellectual agendas. The first is the scientific idea that one practical test of understanding is an ability to reconstitute a functional system from its basic parts. Using synthetic biology, scientists are testing models of how biology works by building systems based on models and measuring differences between expectation and observation. Second, the idea arose that, to some, biology is an extension of chemistry and thus synthetic biology is an extension of synthetic chemistry. Attempts to manipulate living systems at the molecular level will likely lead to a better understanding, and new types, of biological components and systems. Third is the concept that natural living systems have evolved to continue to exist, rather than being optimized for human understanding and intention. By thoughtfully redesigning natural living systems it is possible to simultaneously test our current understanding, and may become possible to implement engineered systems that are easier to study and interact with. Fourth, the idea emerged that biology can be used as a technology, and that biotechnology can be broadly redefined to include the engineering of integrated biological systems for the purposes of processing information, producing energy, manufacturing chemicals, and fabricating materials.

While the emergence of the discipline of synthetic biology is motivated by these agendas, progress towards synthetic biology has only been made practical by the more recent advent of two foundational technologies, DNA sequencing and synthesis. Sequencing has increased our understanding of the components and organization of natural biological systems and synthesis has provided the ability to begin to test the designs of new, synthetic biological parts and systems. While these examples each individually demonstrate the incredible potential of synthetic biology, they also illustrate that many foundational scientific and engineering challenges must be solved in order to make the engineering of biology routine. Progress on these foundational challenges requires the work of many investigators via a coordinated and constructive international effort.

Additional perspectives about synthetic biology:

Factory of Life. Witze, A. Science News. Jan. 12, 2013.

21st Century Synthetic Biology. A talk given to the Institute on Science for Global Policy. Endy, D. (5 Dec 2012).

Synthetic Biology: Mapping the Scientific Landscape. (2012). Oldham, P., Hall, S., Burton, G. PLoS One 7(4).

Synthetic Biology: Taking a Look at the Field in the Making. Kronberger, N. (2012). Public Understanding of Science, v. 21.

The Next Industrial Revolution: How We Will Make Things in the 21st Century and Why It Matters. (2012). Rejeski, D. Wilson Center.

Rewiring Cells: Synthetic Biology as a Tool to Interrogate the Organizational Principles of Living Systems. Bashor, C.J., Horwitz, A.A., Peisajovich, S.G., Lim, W.A. (2010). Annual Review of Biophysics. vol. 39.

Synthetic Biology: Origin, Scote, and Ethics. (2010). Boldt, J. Minding Nature, v. 3(1).

What Does Synthetic Biology Have to Do with Biology? (2009). Keller, E.F. Biosocieties, v. 4, no. 2-3.

Synthetic Biology: Lessons from the History of Synthetic Organic Chemistry. Yeh, B.J. and Lim, W.A. (2007). Nature Chemical Biology, v. 3, no. 9.

The Promise of Synthetic Biology. (2005). Keasling, J. The Bridge. National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies.