New York City's Community Biolab
Introduction to Synthetic Biology
Glad you've asked!
Synthetic biology, or SynBio for short, is the application of the principles of molecular biology towards genetically engineering useful organisms. More so, it can be considered as "genetic engineering 2.0", in that practitioners are committed to standardizing the thicket of sequenced genes, their regulatory elements and the procedures used to engineer these components. Achieving these goals would also increase the reliability and predictability of genetic circuits that are designed in silico, ie, through software algorithms.
Another good description comes from Dr. Jay D. Keasling at the University of California, Berkeley:
"Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological components, such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells, or the redesign of existing biological systems. Synthetic biology builds on the advances in molecular, cell, and systems biology and seeks to transform biology in the same way that synthesis transformed chemistry and integrated circuit design transformed computed. The element that distinguishes synthetic biology from traditional molecular and cellular biology is the focus on the design and construction of core components (parts of enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, etc.) that can be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria, and the assembly of these smaller components into larger integrated systems that solve specific problems. Just as engineers now design integrated circuits based on known physical properties of materials and fabricate functioning circuits and entire processors (with relatively high reliability), synthetic biologists will soon design and undertake large scale biological engineering projects."
Synthetic Biology for Synthetic Chemistry
ACS Chemical Biology
Volume 3, Number 1, p64-76, 2008.
You can further start off with a concise description along with FAQs describing the field of synthetic biology from the syntheticbiology.org webpage:
General articles and talks on synthetic biology
These articles and talks in the popular press cover some of the current work and potential future directions of this field.
"Our Biotech Future"
A New York Times book review by Dr. Freeman Dyson.
New Yorker Article by Michael Spector.
An presentation on synthetic biology by Dr. Drew Endy.
Recommended background reading
A lot of people have asked for some good reference works to start them off in molecular biology and synthetic biology. Although there is no textbook specifically entitled "Intro to synthetic biology", there are some great works on biotechnology and molecular biology which are well written and provide tons of useful and user friendly information. Here are a couple!
Biotechnology for Beginners, Academic Press
By Prof. Reinhard Renneberg
I came across this gem randomly at Genspace and was just blown away. It is chock full of useful technical information, historical material that deserves to be more widely known and tons of great photographs and illustrations. It covers a broad array of microbial biosyntheses used in the production of valuable small molecules, most being isolated in the wild. It covers commercial applications of genetically modified organisms, both the technology and the ethical implications in certain cases such as food crops, transgenic animals, biosensors, etc.
Molecular Biology of the Gene, CSHL Press
By Watson, Baker, Bell, Gann, Levine and Losick.
A classic. On it's 6th Edition I believe, ever since first being published in 1965. Jim Watson is one of the authors. Over 700 pages of accumulated knowledge pertaining to nucleic acids and their associated proteins. What else can I say!
Biology is Technology, Harvard University Press
By Robert Carlson
A mind expanding tour of where biotech is now and where it is heading. Rob's analysis of the expanding economic roles of various biotech fields and their social impacts is the most thorough coverage you will find anywhere.
Bioethics and biosecurity
Foremost in many peoples minds are the potential pitfalls that may be inherent in a rapidly maturing technology that is becoming more widespread over time. I'll update this list but here is the latest review on this subject from a panel of scientists that President Obama commissioned shortly after the creation of a new Mycoplasma genitalium bacteria by transforming in a completely synthetic genome, by Gibson et al, at the J. Craig Venter Institute.
A summary of the presidential bioethics review of synthetic biology in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.