Synthetic biology: Enter the living machine

Herbert Sauro in Nature:

LifeIn 2000, two landmark papers started a revolution in our ability to design entirely new functions inside cells. The authors took two electronic circuits — an oscillator and a switch — and built the equivalent from living matter (M. B. Elowitz and S. Leibler Nature 403, 335338 (2000); T. S. Gardner et al. Nature 403, 339342; 2000). Life became a machine. To many, including me, this was a profound moment: the beginning of the field of synthetic biology. Now an international enterprise with the potential to transform our lives, synthetic biology crosses age and organizational boundaries, and involves large corporations, small start-ups, academics and tinkerers. In Synthetic, talented science historian Sophia Roosth describes her observations of the field's early evolution — the fruit of embedding herself in the working lives of synthetic biologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. She chronicles the adventures of players such as bioengineer Drew Endy and computer engineer Tom Knight, who championed the field. She covers highlights including whether we can patent new life and how automation is changing the way we do biology. She looks at biologist George Church's dream of resurrecting the woolly mammoth. And she examines the start of the do-it-yourself synthbio scene, in which amateurs set up labs in garages and bedrooms.

Roosth conducted some interviews at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as at the Joint BioEnergy Institute and Amyris Biotechnologies in nearby Emeryville, where metabolic engineering is the primary interest. One surprising insight that she gathered was the difference in scientific cultures. The east-coast scene, as one interviewee notes, is “super all positive, group love”. The west is more corporate — a reversal of expectations. Roosth's approach sparks deep questions about the nature of life. At Berkeley, she and bioengineer Adam Arkin discussed what makes a pig gene a pig gene. He said that this isn't a meaningful question: out of context, the gene has no “pigness”. Thus, Roosth asks, how do we define species in the synthetic world, and what does it mean to move genes from one organism to another? More profoundly, what does 'synthetic' even mean?

More here.