Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The synthetic biology of Nature

This week's edition of Nature magazine "celebrates the emerging field of synthetic biology" -- there are a couple of review and commentary articles [which unfortunately require a subscription to read], including one by Drew, but what's even cooler is that the magazine cover is a synthetic biology cartoon, probably a first for Nature.

In general, this field is trailblazing in a bunch of areas other than the "pure" science and engineering aspects of the work, in terms of trying to influence how science is done. There is a pervasive attitude very much informed by the open-source ethos, which is all about sharing information as widely as possible and, just as importantly, making it easy for everybody to participate in generating and updating the information. There's also a lot of emphasis on getting away from the current practice of experimental know-how being handed down from initiate to novice in a mostly oral fashion, which makes biology seem like an arcane science where some people just have "the hands" and can get experiments to work whereas newbies just have to stumble around for a while, paying their dues until they figure out the little detail that makes the difference. Examples of efforts to avoid re-inventing the wheel and make biology more approachable are the Openwetware wiki, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, the International Genetically Engineered Machines competitions etc.

In general, it's fascinating to be in the middle of watching this approach to science emerge and the social responses to it, both from laypeople and scientists [such as recent comments in an issue of Science that seem more prompted by professional jealousy than any higher motives, as far as I'm concerned].

PS: If you're interested in following what's going on in this field, there's a Synthetic Biology website that is updated as new events of interest arise [which is reasonably often], as well as a couple of [currently low-volume] synthetic biology mailing lists that are open to everybody.

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