If you’ve ever been cornered by a synthetic biologist you probably know that they go on and on about how their field will save the environment or revolutionize the way we think about energy. They might even mention that the natural flavour you’re enjoying might only be “natural” because an engineered bacteria made it and not an organic chemist. In reality, synthetic biologists aim to determine whether we can design, build and test biological systems using principles adopted from traditional engineering fields. While the prospect that perhaps one day we’ll be able to program organisms much like we can do with integrated circuits is exciting, we’re still in the early stages and just beginning to figure out how to put all the pieces together… and get them to work together.
The workflow in synthetic biology is simple: design a system based on standardized DNA parts (there’s even a Registry of Standard Biological Parts that catalogues their specifications), assemble these parts into a host organism, cross your fingers, and test whether it works. Recently, leaders of the field have got teams of undergraduate students involved by competing in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
To get a feel for synthetic biology, please take a look at the talk below.
Alright, what do the actual experts say? In 2009, Nature Biotechnology asked 20 experts what they thought the definition of Synthetic Biology is.