Synthetic biology explainer

1 minute read

Nice piece on synthetic biology by Adam Rutherford:

But Freckles is a long way from normal. She is an extraordinary creation, an animal that could not have existed at any point in history before the 21st century. She is all goat, but she has something extra in every one of her cells: Freckles is also part spider.

UPDATE (2012-01-14): A knowledgeable reader writes:

Ah, journalists! What do transgenic animals have to do with synthetic biology? Absolutely nothing, in fact. And the hyperbole fails, too. If the protein was human instead of arachnid (as is the with many cows now), that goat would be part human then? Which would then mean that a lot of bacterial, insect and mouse cells I grow in the lab are part human, too! Woo-hoo! Meet Dima Klenchin, a synthetic biologist... And Venter Institute's bacterium is not a synthetic life by any stretch of imagination and neither is anything else described in the article (modifying microorganisms for industrial production is about two decades old news). In fact, "synthetic biology" seems to be simply a new buzz word to get funding easier. You see, "transgenic organisms" is getting too routine and stale from the funding point of view and "nanotechnology" too has been overused to the point of losing much of its buzz power as well. So pharmacology is now "chemical biology" and gene engineering is now "synthetic biology". As for the truly synthetic life, we are finding that it is a very hard going. Everyone would be enormously impressed by a single brand new enzyme or a metabolic pathway (no aping from existing prototypes in nature). Alas, even that turns out to be easier said than done. But fear not - all those computer scientists and physicists will soon, veeeery soon, come to the rescue. :-)

I thought it was a fun article but your points are well taken. I think that there is a faction who are trying to “define down” the term synthetic biology so it applies to everything from recombinant DNA upward. Venter obviously hasn’t helped matters by trying to lower the bar for an artificial life form.

But maintaining any useful distinction may become impossible anyway if molecular machines can be made to interact in any useful way with endogenous genomes. Of course if they make spider silk comes straight out the goat’s udder it would be more awesome than tomacco!