At the dawn of the 21st century, genetic engineering is suddenly old hat. The world’s first synthetic biology conference convened in June 2004. Two months later, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced the establishment of the first synthetic biology department in the United States.
What is Synthetic Biology?
According to science reporter, W. Wayt Gibbs, synthetic biology involves “designing and building living systems that behave in predictable ways, that use interchangeable parts, and in some cases that operate with an expanded genetic code, which allows them to do things that no natural organism can.” One of the goals, writes Gibbs, is to “stretch the boundaries of life and of machines until the two overlap to yield truly programmable organisms.”
What is the Relationship Between Synthetic Biology and Nanobiotechnology?
Although synthetic biology is not always synonymous with nanobiotechnology (i.e. the merging of the living and non-living realms at the nano-scale to make hybrid materials and organisms), the programming and functioning of “living machines” in the future will frequently involve the integration of biological and non-biological parts at the nanoscale. Scientists at Berkeley’s new synthetic biology department, for example, are particularly interested in the design and construction of “biobots” - autonomous robots designed for a special purpose that are the size of a virus or cell, and composed of both biological and artificial parts.