In our 2008 "Special Feature: Opportunities in Synthetic Biology," we offered a snapshot of the nascent field of synthetic biology, looking at what the field encompasses, the skills it requires, and where the jobs and training opportunities are.
In many respects, synthetic biology -- a field that "aims to apply standardized engineering techniques to biology and thereby create organisms or biological systems with novel or specialized functions to address countless needs," as the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues defined it -- is still very much in its infancy. Yet, over these past few years, there have been sure signs of the field developing stronger roots and a growing sense that applications are within reach.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, for example, recently counted more than 220 companies, government laboratories, research institutions, universities, and policy centers involved in synthetic biology in the United States, with California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas hosting the majority of these. The center found another 80 in Europe, with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom being the most active countries.
According to another report released by the center in June 2010, the field of synthetic biology has seen a sharp increase in funding since 2008. The report estimates that the U.S. government poured some $430 million into the field between 2005 and 2010, mainly through the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Across the pond, an estimated $160 million has been spent during the same period by the European Commission and in individual programs by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany. (Another, independent academic study details how the funding situation in Europe varies greatly from one country to another.)
Some strides have also been made toward bringing synthetic biology onto the market. Ties between public institutions and companies are getting tighter. Last April, the University of California, Berkeley, for example, announced the opening of the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI) with multimillion dollar support from Agilent Technologies. "SBI seeks to bridge the gap between the small-scale, biological engineering of the present and industrial-level production," SBI's founding managing director, Matthew Tirrell, stated in the press release.
Most real-life applications are still a long shot, but commercial products based on synthetic biology, especially in the fields of biofuels and pharmaceuticals, are now in sight. Most commercial prognoses for synthetic biology look bright. A July 2010 report released by Global Industry Analysts speculates that the global synthetic biology market will be worth more than $4.5 billion by 2015. "Synthetic biology is expected to provide major advances in the areas of biomedicine, biopharmaceuticals synthesis, biosecurity, energy and environment, sustainable chemical segment, and biomaterials/smart materials production," the Global Industry Analysts press release states.
This Science Careers article is a tie-in to Science magazine’s special issue on synthetic biology.
But as synthetic biology becomes more established, it is also falling under increasing scrutiny. The field does pose some risks to human health, the environment, and biosecurity, and it has social, legal, and ethical implications that young researchers considering entering the field must be aware of. Following the J. Craig Venter Institute's announcement in May 2010 that it had synthesized the first self-replicating synthetic genome, the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a report examining the potential benefits and ethical pitfalls of synthetic biology. Although the commission saw no need to call for a moratorium on synthetic biology, it asked for careful risk monitoring, government oversight, public dialogue, ethics education, and "a continued culture of individual and corporate responsibility and self-regulation by the research community."
What all this means for young scientists is that, provided they are well prepared, opportunities for them to make a difference and find a scientific niche in synthetic biology abound. While funding programs that explicitly and continuously support synthetic biology remain few -- indicating that applying for broader, interdisciplinary programs may still be the best approach -- more dedicated training programs have become available in the past few years. Building upon our 2008 article on further resources for young scientists interested in entering synthetic biology, below is an updated (though not exhaustive) list of formal training opportunities, synthetic biology-based companies, reports on social and ethical issues, and some conferences and workshops to keep on your radar.
The Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center lists courses offered at its campuses, including UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and Prairie View A&M University.
UC Berkeley recently launched a B.Sc. degree program in bioengineering with a concentration in synthetic biology.
MIT offers a summer course on synthetic biology for professionals.
The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) offers an undergraduate degree in bioengineering with elective courses in synthetic biology and a bioengineering graduate program with a synthetic and systems biology track.
The Ph.D. program in biophysical sciences at the University of Chicago encompasses the fields of synthetic biology, systems biology, chemical biology, and computational and engineering biology.
Northwestern University in Chicago also has a Ph.D. program in biotechnology, systems biology, and synthetic biology
Imperial College London (ICL) offers an undergraduate specialization in synthetic biology.
The University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom offers a postgraduate diploma and M.Sc. degree in systems and synthetic biology.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
The Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYbio) community.
Synthetic biology companies
Amyris in Emeryville, California (renewable fuels and chemicals)
Gevo in Englewood, Colorado (renewable hydrocarbons)
LS9 Inc. in South San Francisco, California (renewable fuels and chemicals)
Global Bioenergies in Evry, France
Solazyme in South San Francisco, California (renewable oil)
Synthetic Genomics in San Diego, California (renewable fuels and chemicals)
Chromatin in Champaign, Illinois (agricultural productivity and renewable energy)
Verdezyne in Carlsbad, California (renewable fuels and chemicals)
Sloning BioTechnology in Puchheim, Germany (synthetic biology tools)
Ginkgo BioWorks in Boston (fuels and pharmaceutical production)
Further reading on social and ethical issues
Arti Rai and Sapna Kumar's "Synthetic Biology: The Intellectual Property Puzzle"
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation–sponsored report by the J. Craig Venter Institute "Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance"
A U.K.-funded review on "Synthetic biology: social and ethical challenges"
Two 2009 U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering report on "Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implications" and "Synthetic Biology: public dialogue on synthetic biology"
Upcoming workshops and conferences
Engineering Life - Philosophical and Societal Perspectives on Synthetic Biology in Copenhagen on 2 September.
The European Science Foundation-European Molecular Biology Organization Symposium on Synthetic Biology of Antibiotic Production, 2 to 7 October, Sant Feliu de Guixols, Spain.
The iGEM 2011 Competition will hold its Europe Regional Jamboree on 1 & 2 October in Amsterdam, its Americas Regional Jamboree in Indianapolis from 8 to 10 October, its Asia Regional Jamboree on 15 & 16 October in Hong Kong, and the World Championship Jamboree from 5 to 7 November at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The SBx.0 International Meetings on Synthetic Biology (look for further announcements)
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.