The December 2009 issue of Nature Biotechnology focuses on synthetic biology, in a special feature (subscription) containing news, opinion, comment and research articles on the topic. The focus discusses some of the progress in synthetic biology towards practical applications, as this latest iteration of genetic engineering, although still in its infancy, offers the prospect of the design and construction of new life forms from biological parts, devices and systems. If, however, you aren’t sure exactly what synthetic biology is, Nature Biotechnology asked 20 specialists for their definitions, so you can take your pick.
The Editorial that begins the focus asserts that “it is not too hard to imagine a future where, with relatively little effort, we can create alternative life forms—minimal-genome chassis organisms with interchangeable standardized gene circuits—that will enable genetic engineers to rapidly move from one industrial project to another. The technology is disruptive, with the potential to transform biological engineering, which until now has been limited to tinkering with natural organisms, and relies on a good deal of serendipity for success.
At the turn of the last century, the Wright brothers achieved manned flight not by mimicking natural systems, but by applying the principles of engineering and aerodynamics. Similarly, synthetic biology allows us to dispense with biological mimicry and design life forms uniquely tailored to our needs. In doing so, it will offer not only fundamental insights into questions of life and vitality but also the type of exquisite precision and efficiency in creating complex traits that genetic engineers could previously only dream of.”
One of the articles in the focus that I particularly enjoyed is Parts, property and sharing by Joachim Henkel of the Munich Universtiy of Technology and Stephen M. Maurer of the University of California, Berkeley, who suggest that synthetic biology should look to other industries’ models for ownership and open sharing. The authors write:
“Synthetic biology is bound to change the rules of the game in genetic engineering. Its reliance on large numbers of parts turns the field into a complex technology, and the importance of shared learning implies network effects and makes winner-take-all outcomes likely. Both aspects are compounded by weaknesses of the IP system—in particular, its lack of transparency. Although these problems may seem modest today, they are likely to become much more serious once the synthetic biology industry starts to generate significant profits.
For these reasons—and even though the general usefulness of patents in the life sciences is beyond doubt—reasonable steps to grow the commons and support open sharing seem highly advisable. We have already argued that an embedded Linux-style open parts collaboration makes good legal and economic sense. Furthermore, the open parts idea enjoys widespread support, not just in the academic community but also, to a large extent, in industry. For every front-runner, there are several firms for whom sharing is the only way to catch up. Similarly, companies that sell synthetic genes and other support services know that cheap, abundant, high-quality parts are good for business. Open parts are the best way to deliver this result. Finally, government has repeatedly intervened to promote open source-style sharing in software and, more recently, stem cell research. We think it will be similarly predisposed to support an open parts project. Yet no matter how synthetic biology is made more open, it needs to happen soon.”