We could start by discussing what is the precise definition of Synthetic Biology and we may continue enummerating the applications -almost always claimed to be “potential”- that have been associated to it. But that discussion would never end: there’s plenty of attention towards Synthetic Biology and some will try to defend or attack the field with unrealistic arguments, most probably based on the high expectations the hype has set on Synthetic Biology, as it usually happens when a certain area of scientific research gains momentum in the public media.
Meanwhile, actual Synthetic Biology researchers -who know the field better than anyone- look at the present hype with caution.
In an article for The Chronicle of Higher EducationMarch 2013,Paul Voosen reproduces some interesting comments by James Collins, one of the founders of the current wave of Synthetic Biology.
Dr. Collins tells us that all the exaggerated enthusiasm with Synthetic Biology can actually end up damaging the field and he makes a call to focus on the basics, specially on the principle of “learning by doing”, just as one of his postdocs, Caleb Bashor, tells us: “There’s a feedback between discovery science and synthetic science that I think more people are starting to appreciate now.” On the same article, Voosen reproduces the comments of Phillip Sharp, another Synthetic Biologists, who compares the early stages of Synthetic Chemistry with the current state of Synthetic Biology.
On 2010, a critical article was published. It puts together the insights of some of the most remarkable researchers in Synthetic Biology at that time: Jay Keasling, Martin Fussenegger, Luis Serrano, Christopher Anderson, Chris Voigt, Jason Chin, Michael Elowitz, Geroge Church and Collins himself, among others, who let us see that the main challenges for Synthetic Biology are: the impredictibility of genetic circuits, the high complexity of biological systems, the incompatibility between some standard parts and chassis and, finally, the variability imposed by natural mechanisms of adaptation and random fluctuations.
On the March 2013 article, Voosen makes a reference of the some times tricky amalgamation of different disciplines under the “grant-friendly” term of Synthetic Biology and also mentions those start-ups where around 1.84 billion USD have been invested, some of which are currently having trouble standing up to the high expectations they were founded upon.
In any case, the message is clear: we must not let us get carried by the hype. Maybe it is more sensible to focus on the new generations and promote the development of the basics of the discipline (like proper characterization of BioBricks and devices, and focusing on teaching proper experimental design to iGEM students, who hold great potential for the field).