‘Synthetic biology’ is difficult to define, even for experts

He was looking quite lost. An eminent scientist and UN delegate was stumbling over the meaning of a term that has been the subject of recent international debates: “synthetic biology.” Often called “extreme genetic engineering,” synthetic biology usually refers to new genetic engineering approaches that give technicians exacting control over an organism’s genome. But it’s not quite that easy.

“For several years I’ve been discussing and promoting the importance of assessing synthetic biology,” he explained at the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s scientific negotiations (SBSTTA 18) in Montreal. “Now I find myself not so sure what it even means”.

Papers prepared for the Convention on Biodiversity last month identified specific Syn Bio techniques such as “directed evolution” and “metabolic engineering,” while some scientists pointed to new epigenetic and RNA manipulation techniques that don’t engage with DNA at all. Delegates referred to synthetic biology as a “basket” of varied and rapidly changing techniques. Todd Kuiken of the Woodrow Wilson Centre pointed out that two years ago, many synthetic biologists were embracing Gibson assembly (as in this fun video), but this year CRISPR, a genome editing technique, is all the rage. Next year it will be something different.

Read the full, original story: What-syn-a-name?

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