I’ve been looking around the synthetic biology scene for a while now. Although my academic specialty doesn’t revolve around the field of biology, I try to keep at least an amateur’s perspective upon the advances and techniques of the field. Considering that my passion lies in the study and realization of artificial life I find it important to keep broad view of things irregardless of specialty or the immediate requirements of my own job.
I’ve often noted that the field of synthetic biology had suffered quite a bit of misunderstanding since its inception (which wasn’t that long ago actually), so I thought I might as well do a little write up of what synthetic biology really is.
Synthetic biology is an approach to engineering biology instead of being an academic field of specific goals. Simply put, synthetic biology as a whole is an approach, which may be utilized toward a specific application dictated by the case/individual/group etc.
In order to become a tool in engineering biology its link with conventional genetic engineering is inevitable. The breakdown of the similarities and differences between synthetic biology and genetic engineering is as follows.
Conventional genetic engineering is composed of three primary stages.
2)PCR (stands for polymerase chain reaction)
The step one and two are about writing the DNA of specific purpose, and the step three is about reading the recomposed/component DNA. While these three steps are integrated to the core of the field of synthetic biology, it includes three more stages which differentiates it from pure genetic engineering.
4)Automated construction of DNA
The fourth stage, automated construction of DNA refers to the divide between the designers and builders of the DNA. Within the structure of the synthetic biology the designing of a DNA sequence and actually working in forming such DNA sequence (which is an expensive and time-consuming process) is separate from each other, making student-amateur oriented biological machine design possible within currently existing technical/industrial infrastructure. However, simply having a separate industry deal with mechanical parts of the synthetic biology would be meaningless without stage five and six, formation of standards, and abstraction of genetic interface. The last two stages run along the lines of the advance of computer programming scene, where formation of standard (html) and abstraction (most users don’t type in zeroes and ones anymore. We click buttons) brought on an explosion of global userbase and subsequent integration of the computerization into the very fabric of modern human civilization. Synthetic biology as a field encompasses all the six stages I’ve written about so far, each of them an integral part that reinforces another. In a way, synthetic biology is intimately linked with the garage-biology or biohacking movement in that it allows individuals to focus on designing their own novel biological contraptions using freely available and globally present database of biological/genetic abstractions and standards, while leaving the complexities and drudgeries of bioengineering to the mechanism of economy/industry.
I personally consider the field of synthetic biology to be a movement. Nothing as pretentious as some political gather-up, but a real movement like a wave spreading across the surface of the human society, a tell-tale sign of something gigantic beneath the surface. People used to build computers in their garage. Look where we are now. I can’t begin to imagine to full impact of well-executed synthetic biology as movement/industry/economy in the course of the future. Many little children these days are aware of tools like python and java, and some of them even utilize them with surprising efficiency and familiarity. Imagine the same children in the future, not with imaginary numbers but with the stuff of life. A little risky, but it’s certainly the type of world I want to live in.
What I also find to be interesting is the method of thinking behind synthetic biology. I don’t know how to put it succinctly yet, but as I have noted in the previous write up ‘transhumanism and the human network’, there is an underlying method of thinking that is showing up in universal scales, regardless of locale and cultural background. Am I correct in assuming this peculiarly wide-spread method of thinking as a type of zeitgeist? If so, where and how did it originate? And what role does the human network and its emergent properties take in the shape of the world we live in?
Maybe, once the biological hacking is done, the little children will hack the human civilization itself.
For those of you interested in slightly more detailed insight into synthetic biology, I give you two links.
The openwetware website, definitely worth a look.
A simple primer to synthetic biology, covers the basics so it applies to other fields of biology as well.