What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology might seem to be something new but the first time the term was used was 110 years ago. The first documented use of the term "synthetic biology" was in 1910 Stéphane Leduc's publication Théorie physico-chimique de la vie et générations spontanées.

But the last 20 years were the time when synthetic biology skyrocketed.

Cheap gene sequencing and more powerful gene editing and DNA synthesis tools enabled synthetic biology to grow rapidly. With rapid growth came big dreams and hopes, and the field entered public as one of the most important fields of the 21st century, poised to change the world in the same way as computers and internet did in the 20th century.

When I started to research on synthetic biology I quickly found out that there is no agreed definition of what it is. Some even joked that if you get five synthetic biologists in a room, you will get six definitions for what they do.

Anyway, what is synthetic biology?

There is a common thread I noticed in many definitions of synthetic biology (also known as synbio) I've found - it is focused on engineering life. Synthetic biology is the only fields in biology that tries to build living organisms from scratch or to reengineer living systems.

It is an emerging field taking tools and ideas from other, sometimes distant, fields. Wikipedia lists biotechnology, genetic engineering, molecular biology, molecular engineering, systems biology, membrane science, biophysics, chemical and biological engineering, electrical and computer engineering, control engineering and evolutionary biology as the disciplines from which synbio takes inspirations and tools. Synthetic biology, however, has more engineering mindset that other fields in biology. Synthetic biologists want to do what engineers have done in other fields - to have tools that help create new functionalities. In this case, in a cell.

Ideally, a synthetic biologist would work just like an engineer does - design a solution, then pick from a list of standardised components those that are fit to solve a problem, put them together in a cell, test it, adjust and so on until the solution meets the requirements.

Some tools have been already built. We can design new DNA in a computer and let machines synthesise it. We have databases of standardised bio components. We are getting to a point where building a cell that does what we want it to do is as simple as writing a code describing how the cell should work.

There are still some hurdles to overcome before synthetic biology can fully spread its wings. It's putting engineering into biology and it is exciting to imagine what can we do with these tools - from bacterias producing biofuels to designing custom proteins to creating biocomputers. Even terraforming is on a table (but we may be starting to ride the hype here).

Synthetic biology is a promising field with a big potential to shape the 21st century just like a computer did in the 20th century.