What is Synthetic Biology?

Engineering Life and Livelihoods
29 October 2014

So here’s a thought experiment. What if living things were actually machines? The sort of machines that you could take apart, reprogram, and rewire to do something entirely new? If so, plants could just be rewired to glow like light bulbs or yeast tinkered with to produce vanilla. The biotechnology industry has actually spent years trying to think about life this way, and that is the impetus to a rapidly exploding new industry called synthetic biology.

Don’t get me wrong: living things are not machines. A bacteria or a yeast is a complex evolving organism. It’s as different from a machine as a skyscraper is from a cloud. But the field of synthetic biology tries to bring orderly engineering principles to the messy stuff of life; it tries to recharacterise living organisms as engineerable.

Note: Synthetic biology = Genetically modified organism (GMO).


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