What do you need to know to be a Synthetic Biologist?

Posted on October 8, 2009


Synthetic Biology promotes the abstraction of biological detail, the standardisation of biological parts and the decoupling of molecular science from the ‘design’ of biological machines: bacteria engineered to be useful for us. Much discussion is focusing on who synthetic biology will be for in the future – is engineering life the domain of engineers, biologists, computer scientists, private corporations, open source registries or amateur ‘garage’ biohackers?

I am designing a Synthetic Biology protocol for SymbioticA, the art and science collaborative laboratory at the University of Western Australia. Synthetic Biology has not yet reached Western Australia; so I am in effect also establishing a new area of biotechnology research at the university. Although I have been researching synthetic biology for more than eighteen months; I am a designer, not a scientist. I am interested in the social, cultural and ethical implications that surround synbio as well as the technology itself. Can learning and applying scientific knowledge and undertaking my own experimental research – rather than just reading papers and talking to scientists – provide fresh insight into the synbio debate?

What sort of skills do I need as I move from abstract knowledge to pouring agar and plating cultures, aseptic technique, design of biological systems and computer modeling? What knowledge and expertise will I need to personally acquire or access through experts? Can I learn enough in a supervised lab setting to work on my own scientific research? If so, how much must I learn before I can I start my research? Could it ever be useful ? I am putting the answers to these questions into a syllabus, a protocol for non-scientists to practice synthetic biology in the controlled environment of an institutional wet lab.

Posted in: SymbioticA