As the BioSysBio conference in Cambridge, UK was winding down, the Woodrow Wilson Center was publishing its latest report on synthetic biology, written by Michael Rodemeyer of the University of Virginia.
In Cambridge, people spent a fair amount of time in discussion sessions and talks on the ethical and regulatory problems that synthetic biology is going to face. And Rodemeyer's report is all about what the US could do to regulate synthetic biology. But the same problem keeps cropping up: just what is synthetic biology?
I took part in a discussion session organised by Jane Calvert and colleagues from the Innogen Centre in which everyone in the room - 30-odd people - split up into groups and worked through a bunch of future scenarios and their likely causes and consequences. One was the introduction of a synthetic-biology pet. We quickly ran into the problem of definition. If you use the widest possible definition then those pets already exist - the GloFish sold in the US by Yorktown Technologies. These are zebrafish with a gene added that produces a protein that makes them glow under a fluorescent light.
The change to the fish genetically is pretty minor, so most scientists I think would lump this in the genetically modified (GM) category. Synthetic biology needs to be a bit more ambitious, such as the lava-lamp mouse that Imperial College's Chris Hirst suggested - its fur would ripple with colours as the perfect hypnotic aid for bleary-eyed students. But you would have to know how that mouse was altered for anyone to decide whether this was a GM or a synthetic biology project. And that might affect how governments regulate, allow or ban the sale of the Psychmouse.
Cambridge University's Jim Haseloff argued that it's the ability to design a pet to a certain specification that would mark out a synpet. But I think it's possible to argue that dog breeders are able to design properties into their animals. They just don't use syringes (at least not as much) to do it and don't have the precision that we presume future biotechnologists will possess. But, thanks to the way that small genetic modifications, such as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) result in big changes in dogs, as Adam Arkin of Stanford later underlined, you can do a lot just with breeding. It didn't take long, it seems, for some wolves to become domesticated and give birth to the first dogs.
Phil Locascio of the University of Oxford argued that the big difference between traditional bioengineering - cross-breeding compatible plants and animals - and the new stuff is timescale. GM is a lot quicker and synthetic biology, because it's meant to involve less trial and error, should be faster still. GM often involves taking genes across species but natural viruses do that too. It just takes a lot longer for complete genes to cross over using the natural process and, very often, they don't function.
Rodemeyer faced the same problem in defining synthetic biology: "At this point, synthetic biology is more of a collection of tools and technologies than it is a specific discipline with a unified purpose...To some extent, synthetic biology is an extension of biotechnology; there is a certain amount of overlap, and no clear defining line between the two areas."
Most people around the synbio business are likely to follow judge Potter Stewart: "I know it when I see it."
Regulators have no such luck but the decision they make will have a dramatic effect on how a nascent synbio industry evolves, and if it does. One of the other situations we pondered was what might lead to the European Union imposing a moratorium on the commercialisation of synthetic biology. It happened for GM in Europe, so you could argue we have already had one in place for synbio. And you can't buy GloFish in Europe.