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12 Months in Synthetic Biology

by David Shifrin

Science hit an inflection point somewhere in the past 10–15 years. We reached a point where all (or at many) of the pieces that go into discovery — these include hard technologies like computing power, light microscopy, techniques for manipulating DNA, and 3D printing, as well as conceptual pieces like the realization that “junk” DNA isn’t junk — actually work pretty well. That means they can be used together to learn more, faster. Interdisciplinary research, and all that. In the same way that synthetic biologists combine and recombine functional genetic parts into novel biological systems, scientists as a whole combine and recombine all the tools of research to make new discoveries. The solid base of technology and knowledge that now exists has significantly increased the slope of the line of scientific discovery. We’ve gone from “that’s science fiction,” to, “no, seriously, it can be done. And we’re doing it.”

Focusing down a little bit, the past year in synthetic biology has been a wild and dramatic time. In other way, of course, it’s just been a normal 12 months in which the steady march of scientific progress has continued. It’s silly to overstate any given moment in time just to try and make a blog post a little more dramatic (who would do that!?). But… it is worth looking at everything that has happened since the middle of last year and appreciating what has actually been accomplished. We talk a lot about the future — how much science and tech can do/will be able to do for humanity and nature — but let’s not forget to look back occasionally.

Give me a minute here, and then I’ll explain why I’m getting all nostalgic. First, though, here is a small sample of things from the world of synthetic biology that we’ve taken note of since last August:

  • iGEM: More participants, more parts, and better parts than ever before. The next generation of scientists is stepping up, and they don’t believe in “can’t.” Each year the participants take one more incremental step towards highly functional products for use in many different industries, all built with synthetic biology. Other prominent programs, such as Y Combinator, have been moving into biotech as well.
  • Indie Bio: The unique bio-accelerator introduced its first class of 11 startup biotech companies. The Indie Bio team isn’t just trying tweak biotech at the margins, but to bring big new ideas to market that will “solve humanity’s most pressing problems.”
  • Biohack spaces: Citizen science labs and biohack spaces aren’t new, but they have been gaining more attention and buy-in, both from the public and the scientific community. The word “grassroots” is nothing if not a buzzword these days, but biohacking really does fit the term. People who have an idea and a desire to make it work show up, collaborate, and simply try new things. Community labs are raising the scientific literacy of society while also providing the resources for novel ideas to come to light.
  • Three-parent babies: The ethics surrounding the application of synthetic biology are complex and hotly debated (and rightly so). Issues like gene editing, resurrecting extinct species, and biowarfare are all being hashed out by scientists, the public, and policy makers around the world. These discussions represent an incredible opportunity for scientists to engage with other stakeholders (i.e., everyone) and have real conversations about what these new technologies mean for society.
  • CRISPR: If the gene editing technique was a big deal a year ago, well, I don’t need to explain to you where it is now. It’s gone from being a valuable tool in research labs, to being the thing that everyone — inside and outside of science — is talking about. And I really do mean everyone, from Radiolab to the big news magazines to activist websites. Several companies have popped up in the past year focused solely on developing and applying CRISPR. I remember being amazed at how quickly Fire and Mello received their Nobel for discovering RNA interference (8 years). The countdown is on, but is it really going to take that long for Jennifer Doudna to end up in first class on a flight to Stockholm?
  • The human side of tech: The suicide of Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz was an awful lesson (one of far too many) of the toll that science and business can take on those involved. For all the time we spend thinking about hard technology, we can’t forget about the emotional, mental, and physical challenges so many innovators deal with.

I’ll stop there and get to the main point, which I promise won’t take another 750 words.

At the end of August, I will be leaving my post as co-editor of the PLOS Synthetic Biology Community. It has been a blast. Like, really, a lot of fun. I’m a cell biologist by training, and the past year has provided me an incredible opportunity to dig into this bizarre and exciting world that combines principles from my field, with engineering, with computer science, with…you name it.

I have loved the Google Hangouts, the interviews, and the live tweeting. I have been challenged to think about science in new ways, and to consider more deeply the ethical and societal ramifications of what we scientists do in lab. I have truly enjoyed reading and editing all the contributions from the Community, especially those from students from around the world.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed, commented, tweeted, and read. The PLOS Synbio Community has grown over the past year, thank you for being part of that.

Of course, there is a lot more to come from this Community. Aakriti will continue managing the site and driving it forward. She has done an incredible job of soliciting contributions, editing, helping with our social media accounts, and writing her own pieces… all while juggling a crazy schedule of school and science-related travel.

With that in mind, we are looking for a new editor to come on board and help Aakriti. We’d be happy to talk to anyone involved in synthetic biology research, but we’re particularly interested in having a grad student or post-docs join the team. If you think you might like to get involved and want more information, please send a note to or tweet @PLOSSynbio. Even if you don’t want to be considered for the editor position but still want to contribute, drop us a note. This really is a community effort, so we’d love to have you involved. Lastly, if you have any questions/comments for me personally, send me a note at or tweet @dshifrin.

Thanks again to PLOS and you all for a great 12 months!


David Shifrin

Image Credit: ALAMY

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