People in the field of life sciences frequently use the term “synthetic biology” but they still disagree on how they should define it. The term was conceived by biotech researchers who wanted to set-apart their scientific efforts from other on-going biotech applications. Although synthetic biology epitomizes the latest developments in utilizing the power of genetic code, it’s actually part of a continuum in the development of bioinformatics, proteomics, metabolic engineering and genomics. It is definitely noteworthy because it aims to integrate the practice of biotechnology with the principles of engineering.
Some of the initial naysayers of synthetic biology define it as “extreme genetic engineering.” One facet of this definition has some truth: synthetic biology is certainly genetic engineering. “Extreme” is not necessarily a pejorative word, either; it may as well mean that the new genetic engineering techniques are extremely useful, extremely precise or extremely efficient.
One on-going effort by the government to define “synthetic biology” outlines criteria that differentiate it from traditional genetic engineering – including computer aided design of genetic material and chemical synthesis. However, these two criteria would capture nearly all biotechnology endeavors today. With the help of gene sequencing machines and modern computers researchers are now able to write genetic code just like the way computer code is written. They may then transcribe these genetic sequences into utilitarian biological products such as biofuels or new drugs. Chemical synthesis of genetic code that is stored on computers is more or less standard operating procedure in the field of biotechnology. It’s simply more efficient than having to replicate genetic code in living cells.
There are additional criteria that have been proposed for differentiating synthetic biology, such as the chemical synthesis of construction of nucleotides that didn’t exist previously in nature and whole genomes. People concur that these are the characteristics of synthetic biology, mainly because they have been developed by researchers who have identified their research as synthetic biology. However, such efforts are rare and difficult at present. Limiting the definition of synthetic biology to this activity definitely makes it a much smaller field – at least until demonstrated utility and success make these more common practices.
The evolution of genetic engineering (whether you also refer to it as synthetic biology or don’t) presents prospects for producing new societal benefits and reducing potential hazards. Synthetic biology has been used by a company to produce artemisinin (a drug used to treat malaria).
Synthetic biology has also been used by other companies to manufacture nylon from renewable resources and also develop photosynthetic organisms (blue green algae or cyanobacteria) that can produce biofuels directly from carbon dioxide and sunlight.