Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is a new and emerging, interdisciplinary research field. No consensus of a generally accepted and clear definition and structuring of synthetic biology has been achieved so far.

Aims in synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is based on molecular biology, uses genetic engineering and knowledge from whole genome sequencing and functional genomics studies, and draws on systems biology. Its novelty, compared to molecular biology, lies in the consequent application of engineering principles to biological systems. On the one hand, synthetic biology aims at engineering living organisms in a way that they can perform functions normally not present or possible in natural living systems. On the other hand, it also aims at using artifical molecular building blocks (not derived from living organisms) in order to perform functions found in nature. Present research strategies comprise, among others:

  • the provision of standardised "bio-bricks" as building blocks for engineered biobased or bioinspired systems
  • the extreme engineering of living organisms in a way that they only possess the functions required for a certain purpose (e.g. production of biofuels), i.e. minimal cells
  • the integration of artificial, non-biological systems into living organisms with the aim of achievieng novel functionalities,
  • synthesis of "protocells" with properties of living cells, but without concrete biological model.

Societal and ethical concerns

As a technology that bears the potential to "build life" synthetic biology raises an array of societal and ethical concerns, many of which relate to the impact uncertainty when this technology is applied in dynamic real-world systems.

Presently, the most important, nearer-term applications of synthetic biology are seen in knowledge generation about the construction and function principles of living organisms, as well as in the industrial production of fine, bulk and specialty chemicals and materials, in the energy sector by harnessing new raw materials, e.g. lignocellulosic biomass, and by providing biofuels.

The mindset in its research community shows similarities to the ICT and software field, with a playful attitude, an inclination towards open innovation and open source approaches.

Synthetic biology is actively promoted by the research funding activities of the European Commission, as well as in European member states. The most active countries are the USA, the United Kingdom and Germany.

As a technology that designs and constructs new biological functions and systems not found in nature, the objection against ' playing God' easily arises. Since 2005, several assessments of this emerging research field have been published by various expert commissions and advisory bodies: In addition to the potentials of synthetic biology, unintended impacts as well as risks are discussed, among them:

  • biosafety risks for health and environment,
  • biosecurity issues,
  • intellectual property issues,
  • justice

Resulting in a discussion of appropriate modes of governance. However, the discussion of opportunities and concerns emanates much more prevalently from 'experts' rather than the public.