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

Posted on October 8, 2009

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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.

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Posted in: SymbioticA