Synthetic Biology - is it another Name for Genetic Engineering ?

People must hear the term, 'genetic engineering', however, synthetic biology seems to be new. Somebody wonders if this is a new name referring to genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology which was a infant discipline emerged within this few years. It focused on devices assembling, system building and engineering methodology. Of course, it was similar to genetic engineering and advantaged most of the techniques of genetic engineering. But synthetic biology was a brand-new stuff which was the further development of genetic engineering.

In terms of scale, conventional genetic engineering tried to transfer one or a few genes from one organelle to another, maybe with tiny modification on genes. Synthetic biology wants more, the ultimate aim of synthetic biology is to synthesize new life to meet our need. This kind of new life is nothing but artificial life. So at this point synthetic biology intersects with system biology. Since synthetic biology is young, it need to enrich the available devices and modules to build the system.

Where do the devices and modules come from? This answer reveals other aspects of differences between synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Traditionally, if we wanted a fluorescence pig, we had to find the cDNA of fluorescence gene. If the genes we wanted were rare, maybe we needed to catch that creature by ourselves. The whole picture changed after the technology development of high-speed and cheap sequencing and inexpensive DNA synthesis. All we need to do is start computers and search for target genes in database, then make an order to let company to synthesize those genes for us. The name 'synthetic' came from this.

Suppose we get the genes, the next step comes to constructing. Here, we shall see the last differences. Conventional genetic engineering connected the parts and tested the functions differently from cases to cases. Thanks to standardization, assembling in synthetic biology is as easy as playing with LEGO toys, the interface is well-designed so that the construction is so simple. Besides, abstraction, reliability, uniformity and reuse, the generic terms in engineering, are all introduced to synthetic biology. Therefore, synthetic biology turns to a field of multidiscipline. Experts with different backgrounds gather to make their efforts. Programmers write the code to calculate, mathematics find model to predict, Engineers consider about the hierarchy, biologists debug the system. Ironically, synthetic biology is more engineering than genetic engineering.

Talking about hierarchy, let me make an analogy between synthetic biology and computer hardware. Proteins and genes are compared to resistance, capacity which are the bottom of the system. Upwards, biochemical reaction is the same as gates in electronics because both of them can function basically. If biochemical reactions form a network and gates form a network, we call them pathways and modules in synthetic biology and electrical engineering respectively. Moreover, there are computers and cells.

The dream is so nice but the reality is so hard. There is still plenty of work to do to make synthetic biology to be a qualified engineering. Often, we don't even fully understand the devices we are using and the whole system is not under our fully control. Despite this, after all, a new world is in front of us, as a Polish geneticist wrote,' I am not concerned that we will run out of exciting and novel ideas, ... in the synthetic biology, in general.'

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South University of Science and Technology of China