Synthetic Biology Is What, Exactly?
Synthetic biology is about, well, living things that are manufactured. Or something.
The European Commission is the latest body to struggle with defining the term synthetic biology, and has produced a 65-page report. In the end, the Scientific Committees punted. (Their full names are here, which links to the Opinion, pdf, as well as comments on an earlier draft, pdf.) This is what they came up with:
SynBio is the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms.
The Committees' rationale makes sense, up to a point: They came up with an "operational definition” that "has the advantage that it does not exclude the relevant and large body of risk assessment and safety guidelines developed over the past 40 years for GM work.” But their approach fails to include what the report acknowledges are key elements of most current definitions: "modularisation and engineering concepts.” In fact, their formulation is pretty close to the more succinct title the ETC Group came up with in January 2007:
Extreme genetic engineering
Which in turn is really not so far from what synthetic biologist Drew Endy said (video), also in 2007:
“Synthetic biology is an approach to engineering biology. … Synthetic biology isn’t making a specific thing, it’s how you make something.”
In the same five-minute video, however, Endy distinguishes the then-new field from genetic engineering by saying that it adds to the older technologies (recombinant DNA, PCR, automated sequencing) three new elements: automated construction, standards and abstraction. Taken together, he said, "they define a new process for engineering biological systems.”
The Committees’ Report is a useful survey. Along the way, it lists 35 different attempts at definitions and appraises the field, including the regulatory position in the European Union, United States, Canada, China, Latin America and internationally. It will be followed in due course by two other Opinions that will "focus on the methodology to determine what, if any, risks SynBio may potentially pose to public health and what type of further research in this field is required."
Meanwhile, you know it when you see it, right?
Previously on Biopolitical Times: