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Synthetic bio: here to stay?

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When scientists discovered long ago that humans cells were programmed by DNA, and that DNA is a chain of nucleic acid building blocks, it was only natural to wonder about getting into the system and doing a little editing. Couldn’t some of the blocks be rearranged, deleted, or copied?

But while it seems to be the human condition to want to take things apart, tinker with them, and then rearrange the pieces in a new way, the complexity of biological systems has for the most part foiled such pursuits.

Many years ago, genetic engineering came along with the promise of making these things possible — and, while it has seen some success, most would agree that it never did (and perhaps never will) reach the potential that proponents saw early on.

And now here we are again, listening to scientists talk about their plans to re-engineer existing organisms or create new genomes from scratch. What makes their story different from the ones we’ve heard in years past?

For one thing, proof of principle. This new community — comprised of scientists and engineers who, until about 18 months ago, for the most part had no idea that other scientists and engineers were working on similar kinds of research — has gathered under the term synthetic biology to take a genome-scale approach to the problem. To be sure, they’re starting out small, designing simple genetic switches and circuits. But they’ve gotten that working, and related projects like Tom Knight’s BioBricks, based on the idea that synthetic biology should have an arsenal of standardized, interchangeable DNA-level building blocks, have garnered considerable interest.

I’ve often heard people in the genomics community wonder when there will be an engineering discipline corresponding to biology. If you listen to synthetic biologists, this is it — and it’s coming soon. In our cover story this month, we bring you a state of the field: who’s leading the drive, what kinds of research are underway, and what needs to happen for the field to take hold the way luminaries say it will.

Be sure to check out our feature article on location proteomics. This concept of tracking where proteins localize to help identify function is being used by just a handful of experts right now, but we expect to see that become part of the mainstream fairly quickly. Stay ahead of the curve with this look at the technology.

Also, don’t miss our newest regular feature. We’re calling it “Under One Roof,” and it profiles a leading research institute working to bring together several of the systems biology disciplines — such as proteomics, RNAi, sequencing, and metabolomics — and extract meaningful data from them in some kind of combined way. In addition to providing a glimpse into some of the most respected and tech-hungry institutes in the field, the column will also give practical, how-to advice about marrying these diverse areas that you can translate into your own research.

Last but by no means least, please welcome Kate O’Rourke, the newest face here at GT. Kate is an experienced reporter who will keep you apprised of the latest news in the field, and she’s also tackling the emerging next-generation sequencing beat.


What do you think of Genome Technology? Let me know how we’re doing by e-mailing me at [email protected]
genomeweb.com or by calling me at +1.212.651.5635.