User:NKuldell/Q/A working page

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Disclaimer: This page is a work in progress but it may be a good place for Reshma, Barry and I to collaborate. No one should consider these complete or authoritative.


  1. Question: How is synthetic biology different from existing, related fields like genetic engineering and metabolic engineering?


Answer: In some ways, nothing. People have been rationally modifying genetic material for much of recorded history. The new part is that now we have full sequence information for many of the planet's organisms AND we have ways to make the genetic material from scratch. Everyday, there are more bugs, plants and animals whose DNA is being sequenced. And everyday, the chance to synthesize that DNA from scratch moves closer to becoming a cheap and reliable option. Synthetic biology makes use of these developments, assembling available sequence information from the living world, in rational, useful and new ways.(NK)

Synthetic Biology also places a greater emphasis on the *engineering* than fields like genetic engineering and metabolic engineering. Fundamentally, engineering disciplines try to make use of standard components that can be assembled in different ways to construct novel systems. Thus currently, synthetic biology seeks to build the foundations for engineering biology. The power of such an approach is that it allows people to build upon each other's work to an extent not possible in other disciplines which are more focused on one-off designs (like genetic engineering and metabolic engineering). Synthetic biology which emphasizes the design and manufacturing aspects of the field should make future efforts to engineer biology easier. (RS)

Some current examples of synthetic biology, however, place less emphasis on foundations and standards of engineering, and in these cases synthetic biology may be better regarded as a specialty of biological engineering, with metabolic and genetic engineering as other complimentary specialities. By analogy, mechanical engineering could be an umbrella descriptor with automotive engineering, internal combustion engine design and headlamp design included as specializations within mechanical engineering. (BC, though I'm afraid I haven't really captured your idea well. Please correct!!).

  1. Question: What kinds of systems can be built via Synthetic Biology that can't be built using other technologies?


Answer (to somewhat different question): There are some folks who want to re-write the genetic code from living creatures just like computer programmers might want to re-write the code for your PC, annotating their changes and making each element of code more manipulable. Other synthetic biologists are engineering the metabolism of simple organisms like bacteria or yeast to make therapeutic compounds whose natural reservoirs are in short supply. Synthetic biology is also a great option for regular, old fashioned biologists who might like to test their existing models by building them from the ground up.


  1. Question: What are the perceived benefits of Synthetic Biology? Who is investing in this and what do they see as the pay-off? Why would someone invest in this area as opposed to more traditional Genetic Engineering efforts?

Answer:

  1. Question: With Synthetic Biology can anyone be a biological engineer?

Answer: Synthetic Biology is still new and has a long way to go before garage biohackers can make something as useful and profitable as what you've suggested. Most of the people doing the work are housed in academic and industrial institutions around the world. Putting bits of DNA code together in useful ways is tricky to do and needs some special equipment that's probably not in your kitchen or basement. Biohacking today is also pretty expensive and often unsuccessful. In a few years it may be easy and cheap enough for anyone to piece together any living creature of their imagination.


  1. Question: Actually, that sounds really dangerous. Are there people who could use this stuff in a bad way?

Answer: no.

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