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Synthetic biology is a new area of biological research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build novel biological functions and systems. The definition of synthetic biology has been generally accepted as the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based (or inspired) systems, which display functions that do not exist in nature. This engineering perspective may be applied at all levels of the hierarchy of biological structures from individual molecules to whole cells, tissues and organisms. In essence, synthetic biology will enable the design of biological systems in a rational and systematic way.
Synthetic biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of Biotechnology, with the ultimate goals of being able to design and build engineered biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and maintain and enhance human health and our environment. One aspect of Synthetic Biology which distinguishes it from conventional genetic engineering is an emphasis on developing foundational technologies that make the engineering of biology easier and more reliable.
Re-writers are Synthetic Biologists interested in the idea that since natural biological systems are so complicated, we would be better off re-building the natural systems that we care about, from the ground up, in order to provide engineered surrogates that are easier to understand and interact with. Drew Endy and his group have done some preliminary work on re-writing.
Emerging Social, Ethical, and Legal Challenges
The vast potential of synthetic biology to affect human life raises new questions for bioethics, biosecurity, biosafety, health, energy and intellectual property. For example, while the study of synthetic biology can lead to more efficient ways to produce cures it may also lead to synthesis or redesign of harmful pathogens. In a post 9/11 world, a new range of potentially malicious actors and actions must now be taken into account by those seeking to govern scientific domains; and new media provides global access to scientific knowledge. Such global access cannot be addressed using existing models of nation-specific regulation. Suggestions for licensing and monitoring the various phases of gene and genome synthesis are beginning to appear. Other initiatives have taken a more proactive approach towards the proliferation of open source synbio projects.
There is also an ongoing, comprehensive, and open online discussion of societal issues online at OpenWetWare, at the SYNBIOSAFE forum on issues regarding ethics, safety, security, IPR, governance, and public perception.
Recently, efforts have been made to think beyond the societal issues model of ethics, politics, and science in relation to synthetic biology. This new approach focuses on the relationships between scientific and other human practices. These human practices approaches attempt to create interdisciplinary collaborations among a wide variety of fields. To date collaborative work has largely consisted either of intensive, short term meetings, aimed at producing guidelines or regulations, or standing committees whose purpose is limited to protocol review or rule enforcement.