Harvard iGEM

Defining Synthetic Biology From Genetic Engineering

synthetic-biologyPeople 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.

Misinformation And Scare Tactics About Synthetic Biology Being Used To Scare Consumers.

A joint campaign by Center for Food Security, Friends of the Earth and the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration abbreviated as ETC Group has been launched to instill a fear regarding synthetic biology in consumers and companies that manufacture consumer products. The groups are following a well crafted formula which involves intimidating consumer product companies with boycotts in an effort to force them to discard the use of biotechnology.

Scare Tactics Cause Consumer Confusion

As a result of this campaign, consumers have been fed with some conflicting advice on synthetic technology. The advice has been labeled conflicting because of contrasting opinions of several environmentalist groups on few issues. For instance, Friends of the Earth give a green signal to the use of palm oil in consumer products whereas their environmental allies such as The Environmental Working Group classifies it as a hazardous product unsafe for use. Friends of the Earth call chemically synthesized vanillin and saffron flavorings to be “nature’s own” while other food safety activists have labeled them unsafe.
To make matters worse, the campaign is joined by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to rattle out the misinformation picked up by the allies. This institute goes an extra mile to equate synthetic biology with latest methods of agricultural biology and calls synthetic biology unregulated. The fact of the matter is that the US government’s omission of a product that has been produced using synthetic biology falls under the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. The same holds true in Europe as well. This is because synthetic biology is an integral part of constant growth and development of genetic engineering although it is much different from other biotechnology applications.

BIO Assures Consumers of Safety

Synthetic biology has given answers to questions that primitive methods of biotechnology and other chemical technologies could not. For example, shortage of certain natural substances such as vanilla beans and rubber that grow only in specific climates may pose a serious supply crisis resulting in they becoming as precious as gold. Chemical substitutes were developed to ease such shortages and subsequently synthetic biology has been used to device cleaner and more energy efficient methods of producing those substitutes. Many such methods have also been recognized with the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards.
As a result of conflicting advice and scare tactics being used by misinformed environmental groups, it is the consumer who is left confused in a tight spot. To ease out their predicament, BIO assures the consumers and manufacturers of consumer products that products made by using synthetic biology are regulated and safe to use.

Is Synthetic Marijuana Becoming a Product Liability

spiceSynthetic marijuana has gained popularity among the public ever since its introduction in 2006. The product, commonly referred to as spice, is developed by combining natural herbs with various synthetic chemicals which, when inhaled, produce similar effects to natural marijuana. However, when the product was introduced, the Spice label was basically marketed to be “unsuitable for human consumption”. As a result of this, people in the society, particularly the youth in Florida were and are still being affected by the product’s side effects. With this in mind, the criminal law system is implementing effective strategies to manage the constant changes in the manufacturing of synthetic marijuana with the help of the products liability law as an option of restoration. With special emphasis on the Florida Law, controversy arises as to whether a products liability claim is currently permissible in relation to synthetic marijuana.

Strict product liability was first recognized in 1966, during the Dealers Transport Company vs. Battery Distribution Company. The Products Liability Act was then enacted in 1978 by the Kentucky General Assembly. The scope of the Act is relatively wide to cover all claims of products liability. Based on specific periods of time, it also creates various conjectures of non-defectiveness, unless rebutted by the prevalence of evidence. Further than that, the Act was designed to limit the individuals held liable in each case. In this sense, if a producer is held accountable for a certain product, the chain of distribution can avoid any liability. However, some individuals in the chain of distribution may be held liable if they were aware of the product’s defects and generally opted to ignore them.

The main controversy surrounding the products liability claim involving synthetic marijuana is whether the caution provided adequately warns the users about the effects of using the product. In order for the claim to be defective, the claimant ought to show that the effects of consuming synthetic marijuana cause more harm in comparison to the attempt of the manufacturer to add more warnings on the packaging of the product. In light of this, Wolf&Pravato tell us that a Florida Court might view the warnings to be inadequate in contrast to the effects of the product. As far as the court is concerned, the warnings provided by the manufacturer do not highlight the possible effects of product misuse which include addiction, confusion, vomiting or an increase in heart rate.

Therefore, provided the chain of distribution is aware of the side effects of the product, they may be held liable. During an interview, one Florida personal injury attorney at the firm of Wolf & Pravato tell us that the courts assume that retailers and distributors should be aware of the inadequate warnings which consequently affect young people in the society. When they fail to take action, distributors and retailers, similar to the manufacturers, open themselves to being held liable in a products liability claim.

Understanding Synthetic Biology, its Uses and Benefits to the Society

BactricitySynthetic biology is a biotechnology field that focuses on engineering cellular systems so that they can be applied in basic science, production of alternative energy and in medicine. This study field encompasses different disciplines, methodologies and approaches with an aim of engineering biotechnology and biology.

An Emerging Technology

As an emerging technology, the field involves many interest groups including geneticists, chemistry experts and bio-technologists. Synthetic biologists approach the creation of innovative biological systems in different perspectives while focusing on the origin and works of life. The focus is basically on how to use this knowledge in benefiting the society.
Among the perspectives of synthetic biologists include the insertion of man-made DNA in the living cells and working on synthesis of gene in extending synthetic chemistry. This helps in building biological systems that form a platform for different technologies as well as rebuilding and rewriting the existing natural systems and developing engineered surrogates.


Synthetic biology is used in a various fields ranging from bio-fuel research to life sciences. This field is not only broad, but also inspiring. Among the key areas where synthetic biology is applied include the following:
Plant sciences
Integrated technologies and sciences are used in analyzing sequence-to-function of plants. Genetic tools are used in producing particular traits or phenotypes.
Synthetic biology is used in optimizing microorganisms, genes and plants which ensures efficient feedback conversion into bio-fuels.
Industrial enzymes
Through synthetic biology, tools, services and technology that enhance optimization of the activity of enzyme, quality and yield for better detergents, and food are developed
Bio-based chemicals
Synthetic biology has empowered natural solutions. This has been achieved by taking renewable approaches for chemicals, textiles and plastics with less environmental impact.
Antibody and vaccine production
Synthetic biology works closely with medical industries to enhance therapeutic pipeline while improving success rate in trials and experiments. It also focuses on disease prevention which includes development of vaccines.
All these application of synthetic biology are beneficial to the society. It is estimated that synthetic biology industry will increase its value to reach $10.8 billion by 2016. For this reason, various governments across the world have focused on this field as one of their major industries and allocated funds to it accordingly.
The field is bound to benefit the society because it has the potential for revolutionizing other fields especially the sustainable energy production industry. Through synthetic arrangement of existing proteins to form new pathways and create organisms that have novel functions that do not occur naturally, synthetic biologists have improved technology in the bio-fuel industry.
A more ambitious and futuristic goal is creation of a synthetic life and this will enhance human understanding of the natural life.