October 2008 Archives

The Hastings Center in the US has published a book, aimed largely at journalists and politicians on bioethics, that covers synthetic biology among a raft of other biological technologies. I haven't read it yet, but the chapters have been published online.

Almost 40 years ago, Columbia Records tried to cash in on the Californian counterculture with the slogan "But The Man can't bust our music". The record company "wasn't like the others", it wanted everyone to know. It was different. Then the company released the first Chicago album after demanding a royalty cut because it was too long. And it didn't take long for MOR syndrome to take over.

At the Synthetic Biology 4.0 conference I wondered what slogan the venture capitalists might adopt as they try to entice researchers to create bioengineering startups to follow in the wake of Amyris Biotechnologies. Many of those researchers have bought into a technological counterculture where community spirit and an open source ethos rule. And, at the least for the moment, the VCs are singing the same song.

Talli Somekh of Musea Ventures presented himself as a former "activist for open source" who was behind the synthetic-biology community's plans to try to prevent its inventions from being locked up behind patent firewalls.

But the spectre of Dr Evil was there too. Drew Endy of Stanford University, who is trying to set up a non-profit 'biofab' in the Bay Area worried aloud about how such an institute might deal with industry aka EvilCo.

Sydney Brenner doesn't like the term 'synthetic biology'. But it's not all bad news for the field. "My only hope is that the term will replace 'systems biology'," the Nobel laureate said as he stood in front of an audience of synthetic biologists gathered at what has become the field's biggest annual event, SB 4.0, this time held in Hong Kong.

In a flying visit, Brenner tweaked the noses of the scientists who were forging ahead in a new area that, to Brenner, was not all that new at all. "I call it molecular engineering. And I thought I invented this," he claimed. "But I looked it up and discovered it was actually invented by our old friend Drexler."

A new kind of fab

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Biofab is an odd name for synthetic biologist Drew Endy's latest project. Unlike the semiconductor fabs it borrows the name from, the biofab that will be set up in the San Francisco Bay area will not actually make anything. At least, nothing physical.

There is a further potential for problems in that the word 'biofab' is also a trademark of Codon Devices, which synthesises DNA for bioengineers and, so really does have a fab - DNA production plants are surprisingly big places given they make tiny quantities of the chemical.

But 'biofab' will probably stick as the community around synthetic biology has already picked up on the term and is keen to see it happen. The official name is a lot less catchy: Joint Center for the Production and Standardisation of Biological Parts and Devices.

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