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Synthetic Biology: Building on Nature's Inspiration
The Synthetic Biology Conference was held November 19-22, 2009

“There are a lot of buzzwords that I call the New Biology: systems biology, nanobiology, synthetics biology, mechanical biology, visual biology, and physical biology.  All of them have one feature in common: they all require collaboration, often across institutions, and all require huge computing resources.”

-Wah Chiu
W.M. Keck Foundation 2006 Annual Report
Promising Directions II: New Eyes

Conference Theme
A PNAS commentary February 6, 2007, states that “Synthetic biology offers the promise of a better understanding of biological systems through constructing them. Unlike naturally occurring biological systems, which are generally complicated by multiple variables and difficult to isolate components, synthetic systems can be simplified to allow for experiments that would be too difficult to interpret if done in their full natural context.”  And while the “parts” of synthetic biology are typically focused (engineering concepts, design, computer-assisted design, DNA read/write process), its applications are far-reaching.  A diverse mix of inter-professional teams of scientists, engineers, doctors, philosophers, lawyers, students, etc. from across the country are investigating how synthetic biology can create breakthroughs in areas such as medicine, pharmacology, agriculture, national security, the environment, and the production of bio-energies, while considering the policy implications, ethical and risk management issues, and strategies to create synergies to become the best in the world at synthetic biology.

This year's NAKFI Conference brought together top researchers, as well as individuals from funding and government agencies, industry and the science media to explore the engineering, scientific and social impact aspects of synthetic biology.  The objectives of the conference were to:

  1. Develop a common understanding of the goals related to synthetic biology for the collective advancement of the field
    • Understand why different teams of researchers are working toward particular goals, e.g., an engineer working in synthetic biology might have the goal of wanting to make synthetic systems that mimic life (e.g., synthetic leukocytes), whereas a geneticist might desire to produce a minimal genome.
    • Develop understanding of synthetic biology “classes”? (e.g., in vivo and in vitro synthetic biology?)
    • Basic understanding of biology and evolution necessary for all participants
  2. Explore tools that make biology easier to engineer
    • Improved biomimetic materials
    • Improved DNA construction technology
    • Standardization/registries of engineered genetic parts, devices, circuits, pathways, and measurement: Does standardization matter?
    • The role of modeling in synthetic biology
  3. Discuss applications and the future of synthetic biology
    • Will scientists learn how to program evolution? How will synthetic biology intervene or accelerate natural evolution?
    • The intersection of synthetic biology with biology itself: How synthetic genetic circuits can be used to understand the basic principles of genetic circuit design.
    • How the field of genetics will change as it becomes ever easier to construct any desired fragment of DNA
    • How will research in synthetic biology be used to produce bio-energy, develop diagnostics, vaccines and cell-based or pharmacological therapeutics, and provide detection of and protection from biological agents? Possible areas of exploration may include:
      • Bionanotechnology development of hybrid bionanomachines and systems
      • Genome biology systematically perturbing genomes in order to understand their function, organization, regulation and evolution
      • Cell-based biosensors and other programmable cells
      • Biosynthesis of chemicals and materials, e.g., polymers
      • Protein design explore sequence, structure, and function relationship and protein design principle
      • Engineering mammalian systems
      • Stem cell engineering
      • Looking at complex artificial networks to tackle diabetes
      • Using cells for drug synthesis
      • Reprogramming stem cells for tissue regeneration
      • Producing bio-energy, with improvements in clean, efficient energy productions
  4. Consider Social Impact: Explore policy, ethical, risk management, and “open source” issues, as well as perspectives on synthetic biology
    • Develop an understanding of risk assessment/explore security issues
    • Who/what should regulate: government, cultural, educational? E.g., Do classified Biosafety Level 4 facilities contribute to national biosecurity
    • Do technologies that make biology easier to engineer help or hinder closure of the risk gap?
    • Can the current gaps between manipulating biological systems, detecting biological agents, analyzing resulting data and responding appropriately be closed?
    • How does promotion of research processes and findings help or hinder security threats posed by synthetic biology?
    • Intellectual property: Should custom engineered DNA programs be covered by patents, or copyright?
    • Evolution vs. Creationism, and now additional perspectives on programming evolution and constructing life