energy needs, the dispersion of existing and emerging diseases—and a host of unanswered questions about how human and natural systems might offer solutions. Many scientists and engineers believe that some of the challenges of the new century might be met through a young and potentially transformative field—synthetic biology—that seeks to accelerate improvements in how we partner with nature to meet our needs.
In the simplest terms, synthetic biology is an emerging discipline that combines both scientific and engineering approaches to the study and manipulation of biology. For example, one branch of synthetic biology seeks to apply engineering principles to realize standardized biological parts that can be reliably reused “off the shelf” to perform specific functions. Rather than asking “How does an existing natural biological system work?,” such synthetic biologists ask, “What components are necessary to encode a specific behavior within an engineered living system?” By asking different questions, synthetic biologists hope to improve our collective capacity to engineer customized biological systems designed to meet specific human needs. Scientists using synthetic biology-based approaches also hope that constructive approaches to studying biology will yield a deeper understanding of natural living systems.
Various approaches are being pursued so as to best practically realize “learning by building” and “scaleable engineering” in synthetic biology. For example, full genome synthesis, when combined with evolutionary screening or selection, can yield improved cellular strains for biomanufacturing while directly supporting “reverse genetics” approaches to scientific discovery.
It is important to note that some aspects of synthetic biology research have been technically controversial. Some ask, for example, whether genetic parts can ever be reliably standardized for reuse across changing genetic and environmental contexts.
Within the research community, synthetic biology fosters relationships across a unique and global assemblage of practitioners that extends beyond established academics and students working in traditional institutions and includes members of the do-it-yourself (DIY) community of amateur researchers. Further, the connectivity offered by the World Wide Web gives researchers an unprecedented opportunity to network, collaborate, and share research results across communities and nations.
Although synthetic biology is still in its infancy—core research has largely been confined to efforts to identify and refine biological units that perform specific genetic or biochemical functions and to improve DNA synthesis and construction methods—the collective vision for the field is ambitious. Progress in synthetic biology, proponents believe, will enhance human potential through an interlocked cycle in which incremental advances expand our understanding of life. Deepening our understanding of natural biological processes will, in turn, improve the biological “toolbox” that gives scientists and engineers the means to engineer organisms that offer new forms of pollution control, novel medications, and sources of energy. Ultimately, synthetic biologists hope to design and build engineered biological systems with capabilities that do not exist in natural sys-