Synthetic Biology: Biology 2.0
Wendell Lim, University of California, San Francisco
In the post-genomic era, the focus of biology is shifting away from identifying and assembling molecular parts list towards understanding how these parts fit together to accomplish complex phenotypic behaviors. Synthetic Biology - the forward engineering of biological systems - has the potential to play a major role in reshaping cell biology at many levels. First, building or systematically modifying cellular systems offers a powerful new paradigm for exploring the fundamental mechanism and design logic of systems that execute complex biological behaviors, including cellular decision making and spatial self-organization. Synthetic biology as a research tool, is in some ways philosophically connected to biochemical reconstitution in that it allows one to systematically ask what is minimally sufficient to achieve a function, although now we can ask such questions within the complex environment of the cell. Second, the purposeful engineering of cells, offers the incredible potential to build cells that address complex societal needs, including cells that can efficiently and cheaply produce biofuels, chemical, and materials, or cellular robots that can execute sophisticated self-programmed therapeutic actions. These new avenues may dramatically shift the research and landscape for cellular and molecular scientists in the coming decades. But the growth of Synthetic Biology also raises many important new and interesting cultural, ethical, and legal issues concerning when and how scientists and society should interact and tinker with living systems.
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