Synthetic biology can be described in quite simple terms; it is the design and production of novel biological systems and organisms. It is not so simply constituted.  Biological research is a vast and heterogeneous enterprise. And so the engineering of biological entities, despite its simple description, inevitably covers a wide range of activities.

Over the course of our six academies symposium this week (see previous blog post here), we heard about some of this range of activities from across China, the US and Europe. What struck me over the two days was not just the range of research, but the range of opinion on whether it is wise to group these disciplines together under one, simple, umbrella definition.

Those who are keen to group the research together add, I think, to the simple definition of synthetic biology. They are not just engineering or designing biology, but also applying engineering principles to biology.

In his talk, Professor Paul Freemont from Imperial College explained what this addition means to him by quoting Simon Munnery: “What genetic engineers do [today] isn’t really engineering. The engineering equivalent of what genetic engineers do is to throw a load of steel and concrete into a river, and then if someone manages to walk across it, call it a bridge” (New World Order pilot, BBC Radio 4, 2008). Freemont sees synthetic biology as a way to incorporate bridge-building methods into biological design.

But what is the analogy of bridge-building methods for biology? We saw several diagrams illustrating the parallels between design processes and the methods of synthetic biologists.  But, for me, engineering principles can be better understood if we use a different analogy for genetic engineering.

Professor Luke Alphey from Oxford followed Freemont, saying he sees genetic engineering more like medieval craftsmanship, providing bespoke solutions to specific problems. His hope is that by using standard parts – the biological equivalent of screws, brick, cables, support beams – will move us from specific solutions to a toolkit that can be used to solve a wide range of problems. (For a lovely example from his own work on dengue-carrying mosquitoes, check out his talk at Davos 2009.)

Listenign to Alphey, it starts to sound like ‘standardisation’, at least on a modest scale,  is the key principle synthetic biology imports from engineering.  However, there are others who think that standardization should be taken much further.

Dr Drew Endy agreed with Alphey: he said that current genetic engineering suffers from “overselection for solving one problem”. But Endy’s dream runs beyond Alphey’s still quite context-specific standardisation. He wants to “rewrite the process for how we make things with biology”, creating a standard bank of biological parts that can be used internationally – moving from medieval craft to global endeavour. You can hear much more, and in much more eloquent terms, in his interview for yesterday’s Material World.

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