Saturday, August 8, 2009

Synthetic Organisms and Synthetic Biology

In my post about Exxon's investment in algae-based biofuel, I touched on Synthetic Genomics, a company that promotes Synthetic Biology -- that is making completely de novo (new, from scratch) organisms.

A big player in Synthetic Biology (or SynBio) is the Biobricks Foundation, which is makes DNA kits available for various cellular functions. There is catalog of cellular parts called the "Registry of Standard Biological Parts," which seems like it should be a joke, but its real. The metaphor is clever -- building an organism from Biobricks like building a wall with real bricks.

Aside from the Biobricks people, most of this field seems to be information science people trying build build "wet-ware" and bioethicists toying with interesting up-to-now theoretical issues. The information science types need to harden up and do some molecular biology. Bioethics is fun, but that is not getting the science done either.

Ginkgo Bioworks has a kit for assembling Biobricks. The instructions read like the Bioengineering for Dummies, with pictures and very basic instructions. I wonder if this is directed at hobbyists rather than scientists.

A light-hearted intro to synthetic biology is in this comic from Nature magazine.
The article is from way back in 2005, and it shows the information systems brand of synthetic biology, wherein these new cells are like electronic computers. The comic makes an interesting point about the bioengineers not really understanding what they are doing. (Is that typical of engineers?)

I have not seen any convincing accounts of real synthetic organisms to this point.