In The Field

Synthetic Bio 3.0 (Hackers Welcome)

Synthetic Biology 3.0 started today in Zürich, Switzerland and runs until Tuesday. This is the first European site for a meeting looking to unite biology and engineering under the umbrella of a breakout new field (1.0 and 2.0 were at MIT and UC Berkeley, respectively).

I tend to think of synthetic biologists as something akin to computer hackers, because they are looking to understand living cells in a more thorough sense by precisely designing manipulations to natural biological systems. They’re trying to write code for new biological functions and in a sense are hacking the cell. But that’s probably an imprecise definition.


Indeed, definitions in this field, as for most new fields, have been something of a moving target and in speaking with meeting goers, already I’m told there are diverging opinions as to what synthetic biology entails and how it differs, really, from classic bioengineering as done over the past two or three decades. I’ll try and pin down a definition by the end of the meeting.

Things are just getting underway with a couple of morning tutorials. I’m sitting in on a short course about yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Stefan Hohmann from Göteborg University is easing a crowd gently into the rich history of yeast genetics. The many tools already available for the single celled eukaryote make it a great organism for hacking (much work so far has focused on bacteria and phage systems).

ETH Hönggerberg serves as an idyllic conference site. The HCI building, in which the majority of the meeting will be held is a monument to science, engineering, and architecture in stainless steel and granite (I’m reminded of a kitchen I’d some day like to own). Five enormous fingers of the building jut into the Swiss countryside overlooking a field of wheat and a pasture with a group of grazing cows. I believe the building is somewhat new as google maps showed it still under construction (HCI is on the Southeast corner of campus). Between the fingers of the giant building, deep pits house what looks like representations of different Swiss ecosystems: a shallow lake, another with spots of vegetation, one filled with grasses, and another with trees and ferns. I’ll see if I can’t find out their significance.

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