Synthetic Society/Distinguishing and defining Synthetic Biology

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Due to the wide nature of this topic and the different opinions that may exist, contributions are very welcome


To help us examine perceptions of Synthetic Biology it would be useful to distinguish Synthetic Biology from other disciplines that from the outside may seem similar, such as Genetic Engineering. If we have a clear understanding of this distinction, it becomes easier to educate the public about the aims, methods and implications of Synthetic Biology. Due to the fact that the field is still somewhat ill-defined and the fact that different visions of the field exist, distinguishing the Synthetic Biology is not necessarily trivial.

Initially, this page will feature a collection of opinions from various published sources. Hopefully, the page will evolve to include the opinions and views of those at the coal front of Synthetic Biology and achieve some sort of consensus on the issues raised.

Brief Definitions of Synthetic Biology

From the synthetic biology working group - "Synthetic Biology is A) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and B) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes."
From Roger Brent [1] - "[Synthetic Biology] describes[s] efforts to design biological systems to perform a given function, verify that they will have that function before one builds them, instantiate them in DNA code and use the system to accomplish the function."
From Tom Knight - "Synthetic biology studies how to build artificial biological systems for engineering applications, using many of the same tools and experimental techniques. But the work is fundamentally an engineering application of biological science, rather than an attempt to do more science. The focus is often on ways of taking parts of natural biological systems, characterizing and simplifying them, and using them as a component of a highly unnatural, engineered, biological system."
From wikipedia - Synthetic Biology is a new area of research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build novel biological functions and systems. There are four main branches of research that define the field: Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, and Re-writing.
From Synthetic Biology @ Berkeley - "[The] Synthetic Biology Department, seeks to understand and design biological systems and their components to address a host of problems that cannot be solved using naturally-occurring systems. Employing organisms and biologically inspired systems to solve real-world problems has enormous potential for human health, renewable energy, and the environment. Synthetic biology also provides an alternative perspective from which to consider, analyze, and ultimately understand our living world."

From Scott Mohr - "The concept of synthetic biology rests on the idea that cellular systems are modular. They are composed of many subsystems that function in concert by means of multiple regulatory circuits. This immediately brings to mind the analogy of electronic circuits and computer hardware/software and this analogy has strongly inspired work in the field of synthetic biology. From the engineering perspective the task is to dissect the natural biological systems into their modular elements, then recombine these to produce novel functions and/or behaviors. From a more theoretical point of view, experiments in synthetic biology amount to the logical progression of research in biochemistry/molecular biology from the analytical, reductionist phase to the integrative, holistic phase. In the process, this work puts our molecular understanding of living systems to the ultimate, most stringent test. [Not surprisingly, at this early stage most of the parts apparently don’t work! (Austin)] The distinction from “old-fashioned” genetic engineering is that the logical goal of synthetic biology is to have a very large repertoire of well-characterized components that will enable almost limitless combinations to generate novel functions. Classical genetic engineering mostly deals with manipulations of single genes; synthetic biology ultimately amounts to building entire systems “from the ground up.” (Barry)"

Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering

According to Brent [1], synthetic biologists distinguish themselves from traditional genetic engineers in three ways -

  1. Synthetic Biologists "desire to assemble complex living systems from well-defined parts, rather than making simpler interventions that suborn existing systems." (note that other synthetic biologists advocate an evolutionary approach to constructing systems rather than a rational engineering approach)
  2. The researchers consider themselves to be engineers rather than scientists or physicians.
  3. Synthetic Biology adopts many doctrinal points from traditional engineering disciplines (e.g. Absraction, standardization, decoupling).

These points are important from a perception of risk point of view as the rational, structured, approach to engineering biology should result in less unpredictable events, better strategies for dealing with unpredictable events and better accountability for mistakes.

According to George Church - "The main issue is separating synthetic biology from existing fields like genetic engineering or cellular engineering. It's treating biology the way you would treat large-scale integrated circuits. We've been dealing with one part at a time or a small number of parts. Synthetic biology is engineering of new systems using parts that we trust. It's applying the best analyses from systems biology to fabricating and testing complex biological machines."

According to Robert Holt - "The lines between synthetic biology and classical recombinant DNA techniques are still blurred. Basically it's taking those elements to the next level - actually engineering the cell."


  1. Brent R. A partnership between biology and engineering. Nat Biotechnol. 2004 Oct;22(10):1211-4. DOI:10.1038/nbt1004-1211 | PubMed ID:15470452 | HubMed [brent]
  2. [nocited]