Synthetic Biology Comes Down to Earth

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Paul Voosen in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Let's make one thing clear: Jim Collins won't grow you a house any time soon.

More than a decade ago, Collins, a decorated scientist at Boston University, helped give birth to synthetic biology, which soon grew into arguably the world's hottest and most poorly defined scientific discipline. Its practitioners made big promises: that by harnessing the ideas of engineering and applying them to genetics, they would create cheap, abundant biofuels, customized medicine, even self-growing houses, as one scientist predicted.

The potential for mastering life was so exciting that scientists ­talked about applications decades away as if they were around the bend. Scholars from the Bay Area and Boston issued forth into industry, promising to reinvent life from the inside out, evolution be damned. Drawing inspiration from electrical circuits and computing, they'd create standardized biological parts. The notion drew easy comparisons to Legos: Snap them together, and soon enough you'd have control of life.

Since 2004 investors have poured at least $1.84-billion into synthetic-biology start-ups; the government has added many more millions in research dollars. But more recently, the hype has died down. Most of those companies have made grinding progress, not breakthroughs. Much potential remains to reinvent manufacturing and medicine, but the road is far longer than some imagined.

There's a simple reason for this problem: The tools have outpaced the knowledge. The cost of genetic sequencing and synthesis continues to plunge, but the functions of many genes in even the simplest forms of life, like bacteria and yeast, stubbornly hold on to their secrets. Genetic networks interact in complex, mysterious ways. Engineered parts take wild, unexpected turns when inserted into genomes. And then evolution, a system that would drive any electrical engineer mad, tiptoes in.

As synthetic biology passes from precocious youth toward maturity, it is returning home to academe. Collins sees an upside to that retrenchment: The science, once a domain of biological amateurs and outsiders, can now inform basic research into life's unending complexity.

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