Earlier this summer I got a travel fellowship from the SynBERC Student & Postdoc Association and Practices Thrust to attend the Six Parties Symposium on Synthetic Biology. The theme of the symposium was “Synthetic Biology for the Next Generation” and was jointly run by the National Academies of Science and Engineering from the US, the UK, and China. The fellows were asked to write a short perspective about the symposium and how we see the field advancing in the future. I’m posting my essay below, and you can see the perspectives of the other fellows here.
What is the future of synthetic biology? How do we get there? The recent Six Parties Symposium on Synthetic Biology brought together scientists, engineers, policy makers, and social scientists from the US, the UK, and China to think about the future. Panels focused on the grand challenges that we face, the potential for synthetic biology to address some of these challenges, and the tools—technical and otherwise—necessary to see this potential through to real world applications.
Many of the presentations included timelines on vastly different scales: graphs of rising global temperatures in the past hundred years and graphs of carbon dioxide levels extrapolated out to 12,000 AD; graphs of the exponentially increasing computer processing power in the past fifty years, the exponentially decreasing cost of sequencing and synthesizing DNA in the past ten, and the rapidly increasing number of students participating in iGEM over the past five. Connecting these different timelines, harnessing growing communities and improving technologies to address complex and large-scale environmental problems is the focus of a different kind of timeline—the technology “roadmaps” that set out goals and timeframes for problem solving and industry development in synthetic biology.
But to advance the goals of synthetic biology, first we have to decide on what synthetic biology is, what the goals are, and what is necessary to actually reach those goals. Synthetic biology is a combination of engineering and biology, interpreted and defined in many ways but often in contrast to traditional biology fields. One of the many such definitions of synthetic biology discussed at the symposium was that synthetic biology reverses the genotype to phenotype link; while research in genetics and molecular biology aims to understand how a cell’s genotype leads to an observed phenotype, synthetic biology begins with a desired phenotype and seeks to design the corresponding genotype. The complexity of biological systems and the context-dependence and stochasticity inherent in how phenotypes emerge from genotypes complicate efforts to design functional synthetic networks, but also provide a useful metaphor for thinking about the futures of synthetic biology.
Like the connections between genotype and phenotype, the connections between the roadmaps and the futures that they aim to predict are complex, context-dependent and involve much more than just efficiency and technical feasibility. Indeed, the tools that synthetic biology has focused on in the past decade have always been both technical and social—principles like standardization are encouraged to enable streamlined engineering but also to promote collaboration and open-source development. The symposium, with talks from people working in academia, industry, IP law, environmental advocacy, law enforcement, and government foregrounded many of the issues that complicate the path from roadmaps to futures, including the politics of science funding, the economics of fossil fuels, the reward structures for academic researchers, the educational programs available for interdisciplinary training, risk assessment, regulations, media representations and public perceptions.
Given the complexity of factors influencing the funding of and research in synthetic biology, it’s no surprise that there are almost as many proposed futures as there are definitions and technical standards for the field (like opinions, everyone has one). As Nikolas Rose warned during a panel on social issues involved in synthetic biology, “Too many roadmaps means you don’t know where you’re going.” How can we keep from getting lost? How do we get a future that we want? Who gets to decide?
Perhaps the diversity of goals and the diversity of approaches can be a strength rather than a weakness. Synthetic biology alone can’t solve any of our grand challenges, and synthetic biology can’t develop in a vacuum, isolated from all non-technical factors. The range of voices and perspectives at the symposium reflect the kind of community necessary to understand problems and to craft sustainable solutions.