Experts weigh in on the biggest obstacles in synthetic biology — from names to knowledge gaps — and what it will take to overcome them.
James J. Collins: Bring in the biologists
Professor of biomedical engineering,
Synthetic biology is often described as bringing together engineers and biologists to build genetic circuits for some useful task. In fact, the field has engaged relatively few biologists. This is holding back its progress. We do not yet know enough biology to make synthetic biology a predictable engineering discipline.
Mary Maxon: Agree on a definition
Head of biosciences strategic planning and development, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Researchers, regulators, consumers and detractors in the United States cannot agree on whether synthetic biology is a new discipline of engineering or an extension of biotechnology. Debates abound over whether geneticist Craig Venter created artificial life using synthetic biology, and whether that term is just another name for genetic engineering. These ambiguities complicate discussions among scientists, hinder policy-makers, impede efforts to fund synthetic-biology research and thwart regulation that might build public confidence.
Andy Ellington: Build green 'bioalchemists'
Professor of biochemistry, University of Texas at Austin
The biggest challenge for synthetic biology is how to extend beyond projects that focus on single products, organisms and processes. Right now, most applications engineer bacteria that start a synthesis with glucose and turn out biofuels or fine chemicals, such as vanillin or artemesinin. A broader scope could help to build a 'greener' economy, in which more organisms make a greater range of chemicals.
Martin Fussenegger: Make tools for mammalian cells
Professor of biotechnology and bioengineering, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich
For synthetic biology to be useful in medicine, more and better tools are needed for work with mammalian cells. The tools that are now standard for bacteria are missing or underdeveloped for mammalian cells. (Similar challenges exist for engineering plant cells.)
Ron Weiss: Automate efficient design
Professor of biological engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
As synthetic biologists build ever more genetic parts, efficient design has become a major stumbling block. In a system with three components, many of the possible combinations can be explored experimentally, so a design does not need to be perfect. However, once the number of components exceeds five or so, it often becomes impractical to explore the relevant design space completely. Without a much greater effort, synthetic biology will be left with many clever parts, but only limited and inefficient ways to combine them.
Herbert Sauro: Capitalize on evolution
Associate professor of bioengineering, University of Washington
Engineering life is not like engineering concrete or silicon. Bioengineers painstakingly craft a design, and a day later it has crumbled in the face of evolutionary selection. Synthetic biologists must learn to address this.