Thousands of researchers will descend on Boston this fall for an event billed as the world’s largest gathering of synthetic biologists. The field is evolving so rapidly that even scientists working in it don't agree on a definition, but at its core synthetic biology involves bringing engineering principles to biotechnology. It’s an approach meant, ultimately, to make it easier for scientists to design, test, and build living parts and systems—even entire genomes.
If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works.
In Boston, scientists and students will showcase so called “synbio” projects developed over the summer, including systems ranging from new takes on natural wonders, like the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a useful form (nitrogen fixation), to newly imagined functions, like an odorless E. coli cell meant to crank out a lemony, edible “wonder protein” containing essential amino acids.
Now in its eleventh year, the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition has grown up alongside synthetic biology itself. Organized by a nonprofit foundation spun out of MIT, the event has acquired a mix of public and private partners, including the FBI, the National Science Foundation, Monsanto, and Autodesk. And no wonder. Synbio could produce both transformative science and big business. By some estimates, the global market for synthetic biology is projected to grow to $16 billion by 2018. Much of the anticipated activity centers on pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tools, chemicals, and energy products, such as biofuels. But in the face of energy and water constraints, a squeeze on cultivable land, and an imperative to limit greenhouse gas emissions, synbio could also transform the way we farm and eat.