HILTON HEAD, SC, Oct. 17 (GenomeWeb News) - US politicians are not happy with the terms "synthetic biology" or "synthetic genomics" and are becoming "somewhat abusive" in their attempts to have the monikers replaced, according to Ari Patrinos.
Patrinos, associate director of the Department of Energy's office of biological and environmental research, said that his "political masters" had asked him to change the name, presumably because of its politically charged connotation.
"In the beginning they were pleading, and now they are being somewhat abusive, [saying], 'Can't you find a better term?'" Patrinos told attendees of the first-annual Genomes, Medicine and the Environment Conference, held here this week. "'It conjures up the very worst things,'" he said they'd say, "and when you try to make a pitch for it, the first reaction you get from non-biologists is a very negative one."
It wasn't clear if Patrinos was referring to the legislative branch, which funds the DOE, or the executive branch, which oversees it.
He said he and his colleagues "have been racking our brains to come up with a better, more of a benign, friendly term" for synthetic biology and synthetic genomics. "And when I [tell these politicians], 'Well, how about engineering, or engineered biology,' they thought it was even worse.
"So the process continues while this field is galloping along and the term is becoming more and more accepted," Patrinos added. "But the pressure [to change the name] isn't being diminished" despite this progress.
What's in a Name?
The discipline called synthetic biology helps keep in business companies that sell sequence-verified full-length cloned genes, oligos, and other tools, and has been slowly taking shape in recent years. In 2002, a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook used off-the-shelf oligos to create poliovirus, and one year later Craig Venter and colleagues synthesized a genome to create the bacteriophage phiX174.
More recently, Venter founded a company, Synthetic Genomics, to create the first man-made bacterium, the 517-gene Mycoplasma genitalium. Though the company is still developing the technology, and its applications are speculative, Venter has suggested that one potential application is in the production of alternate energy sources.
According to Ham Smith, who is the co-founder, executive vice president, and co-chief scientific officer of the company, research into the bacterium has shown that all of its 44 RNA genes and "at least" 383 of its 482 protein-coding genes are essential "and could form a minimal set" of genes.
Speaking to GMEC attendees after Patrinos' introduction, Smith said Synthetic Genomics hopes to identify a subset of "dispensable genes" that can be simultaneously deleted from M.genitalium's lone chromosome by synthetically building a wild-type version of the chromosome using chemically synthesized oligos.
Synthetic Genomics then plans to "test the viability" of the chromosome by transplanting it into cells from which the resident chromosome has been evicted.
GMEC is organized by the J. Craig Venter Institute. The conference had previously been called the Genome Sequence and Annotation Conference.