In The Field

Leaving Zürich and Planning for Next Year

Yesterday marked the finale of Synthetic Biology 3.0. Tom Knight of MIT, considered a founder of the field, gave an inspirational keynote address laying out some of the near-term goals for the budding enterprise:


Scientists need to better marry the principles of engineering and biology. Define useful layers of abstraction so that scientists interested in delving into details on a certain aspect of biology, say signalling kinetics, don’t have to worry too much about what geneticists are doing and can essentially pull ready-to-use easily manipulated genes from the shelf to conduct their work. Imperative in this is standardizing practices so that what the genetics folks create, signalling folks can use. Achieving the kind of modularity that exists for electronics engineers is the goal here, and computer design, unsurprisingly, was a recurring comparison.

The good news he said, is that biology is already doing this. Natural selection has been able to employ modularity of genes and gene components, he said. Otherwise, it would be impossible to deal with the complexity of ‘building’ working structures.

Knight called for new tools in chromosome design, in metabolic design, in protein design, and in engineering safeguards for newly manipulated organisms (such as non-standard genetic code). He also underlined the imperative to make new parts freely available, reiterating the vaguely dirty sounding message on the backs of the biobricks stickers that had been going around. “Share your parts!”

This was the third synthetic biology conference, and the organizers announced plans to hold the fourth in Asia in October of 2008. When prodded for an exact location, Drew Endy also at MIT said the tentative plan is to hold the conference in Hong Kong. Until then!

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