MAY 29, 2014 12:00 AM PDT

Synthetic Biology: An Exciting Field Filled With, Controversy, Hope and Danger

WRITTEN BY: Peter Micheli
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Synthetic biology uses elemental building blocks and an engineering approach to create biological systems for specific uses. For example, DNA may be designed to have the capability of instructing cells to detect disease or perform healing functions. It has a wide range of medical and industrial applications. Although its origins go back as far as the early twentieth century, the field has only become more organized and important in the last ten years or so. It was just last year that one of its biggest breakthroughs occurred. The pharmaceutical firm, Sanolfi, taking advantage of a discovery by Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, began production of a partially synthetic form of artemisinin, a malaria drug that is usually derived from plants.

As synthetic biology has advanced, a cultural divide in the field has become more evident. On one side sit those who come out of the software design and engineering worlds and advocate for an open-source approach to intellectual property. On the other side are the big traditional pharmaceutical companies that believe that patents and licensing agreements are required to protect the investments they make in developing new drugs.

Ironically, they both claim that their approach encourages innovation. The traditional companies and their representatives such as the Washington, DC-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) say that strict intellectual property controls are required to motivate companies to make the investments needed that lead to breakthroughs and innovation. The open-source advocates say that the large fees needed to use patented synthetic biology tools hinder innovation. They believe that sharing and cooperation lead to new discoveries and innovation. Some also take an altruistic approach. Linda Kahl, of the non-profit BioBricks Foundation which promotes using biological engineering for the public good says, "It's not just commercial applications. It is also about doing good in the world."

There is still some question as to which view will dominate the industry. A study from a group of researchers in Germany found that many synthetic biology researchers were patenting their work. Lead author, Davy van Doren, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research stated, "We couldn't find any evidence that patent trends in synthetic biology might be different compared with other domains."

The open-source movement is promoting its goals by setting up public registries, much like open-source software registries. One of the biggest is the IGem Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Such registries are repositories for basic synthetic-biology building blocks, which are known as "biobricks". But these registries are not without problems either. There isn't the manpower to make sure what's available in them works as claimed. Andrew Torrance a University of Kansas law professor that specializes in synthetic biology says, "You're not getting finished, high-quality pieces of DNA in every case." Keasling goes a step further, stating, "There's a lot of crap in there." One possible outcome is that the industry will move to a composite system where the biobricks are freely available, but the more complex products and systems using them are patented.

The "brave new world" of synthetic biology holds much promise, but also poses threats. Questions exist about its environmental impact and possible intentional misuse. Potential applications of the technology provide an idea of how powerful it can be. At a conference held in May 2014 at MIT speakers discussed applications such as personalized medical treatments and efforts to revive extinct species.

Synthetic biology's potential for both good and bad outcomes has led the Inter-Academy Panel (IAP), the global network of science academies to issue a statement regarding its use. In it, they call for the scientific community to engage with the public to discuss ethical and social concerns surrounding the technology, including patenting vs. open source models for sharing developments, potential regulation, and guidelines for scientific responsibility and codes of conduct.


Synthetic biology's potential to produce groundbreaking beneficial developments affecting a wide range of products and applications including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, biofuels, materials, agriculture and even information processing, makes it important to settle the controversies and answer the questions arising from its rapid advances. Like other emerging technologies before it, how these issues are resolved are likely to involve imperfect compromises that will still allow many of synthetic biology's benefits to be realized.
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