“Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering.” That’s the first sentence in Wikipedia’s article on synthetic biology. While this sounds simple enough, it has huge implications. Biology as a science field and engineering don’t seem to have much in common and in the past both were even enemies, competing for funding and attention. Scientists often seemed to look down on engineers, feeling that science is the more “pure” form of knowledge gathering. Nevertheless, science and engineering were always dependent on each other – one relying on principles described by the other and one justifying its research with future application created by the other. More and more scientists, especially in biological sciences, have to justify their research with future applications when applying for research grants (can it cure cancer? Sold!). On the other hand you have huge collaborative projects like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. At first glance it might seem like the purest basic science project imaginable – where is the immediate application of the Higgs Bosom? But it is definitely a huge engineering project that of course wouldn’t be imaginable without the extraordinary work of hundreds of engineers.
Does that mean that thanks to huge collaborative projects scientists and engineers are coming closer? Is synthetic biology now the perfect marriage of two fields that belong to each other and form by it something new? Or is it just another discipline of science or engineering?
Synthetic biology has mostly been shaped by people with backgrounds in biology, chemistry, engineering and computer science. Today, still people with many different backgrounds work in the field. My observations of work culture remain largely subjective, but I personally have seen striking differences: researchers trained in science work with a hypothesis and go into great lengths to prove it, engineers use tools to improve a system. I’ve experienced scientists accusing engineers of “not having a hypothesis” and engineers being frustrated by scientists discussing for hours about correct controls.
Of course, these are crude (and mostly anecdotal) descriptions of the reality. Still, it feels to me that synthetic biology is not a hybrid of biology and engineering but a field that is populated by both scientists and engineers with their own convictions and ways of work. Some people might gossip that synthetic biology is a grand scheme by biologists and engineers to tap some of the nice big grants. I don’t think that entirely true, although synthetic biologists are definitely not shy with big words about engineering life and some PIs just relabelled their old research in order to get some of the synthetic biology funding.
Nevertheless, synthetic biology and the art of engineering life is a (young) scientific field in its own right with breakthrough not thinkable without its unique history of merging biology and engineering (science historian Sophia Roosth published recently a very interesting book about it: Synthetic: How Life Got Made). DIY-bio labs pop up everywhere and even though they embrace very much the spirit of the early computer (hacker) communities, they face other problems. The technology is still very expensive and not readily available while their work is more closely monitored by regulators (at least I don’t recall the FBI raiding young Bill Gates’ garage). At the same time new courses and study programmes in synthetic biology are being introduced at universities. Maybe they’ll produce a new generation of researchers strongly footed in the world of science and engineering who have a better understanding of both sides (I might write a future blog-post about the course profiles of Synthetic Biology programmes). Until then synthetic biology will be a field welcoming people from a lot of disciplines. Maybe, that’s actually a strength.
By the way, I’m having a background in biology, so you can call me biased. But every time I hear somebody talking about engineering life like a car that can be understood and improved by simply looking at the single parts, I want to scream out loud. I’d rather think of my model organism as a running train. You push all kinds of buttons and try to figure out what they do while you’re laying the tracks it’s running on. When you tamper with the engine exhausts, suddenly the wheels become bigger and you don’t know why, even though bigger wheels might be useful in some context. Oh, and the train derails all the time. Most of the time, you also don’t know why. I guess, life is more complicated than a simple car.
Synthetic: How Life Got Made, Sophia Roosth, University of Chicago Press: 2017, ISBN: 9780226440323