- Sunday, August 24, 2014

What's the difference between synthetic biology and bioengineering

Synthetic biology and bioengineering are two interrelated terms that refer to different aspects of the biotechnology landscape. To get a clearer picture, it's useful to try to break down what they can mean and how to think about them.

Bioengineering is a general term for a wide range of engineering disciplines aiming to incorporate existing biological systems into engineer processes. The range of subjects can be anywhere from agricultural management, to energy production, pharmaceutical production or tissue engineering.

Synthetic biology, on the other hand, is a much more specific set of techniques in the larger field of bioengineering. Synthetic biology is an emerging biotech field that hopes to allow scientists and engineers to design organisms to suit particular needs not already found in nature. With the techniques of synthetic biology, researchers are hoping to make more far-reaching impacts on problems like affordable drug synthesis, ecological remediation, or even bioluminescent street lighting.

In this sense, bioengineering generally encompasses modification of existing strategies and technologies, while synthetic biology presents a fundamentally new and unexplored potential to expand the realm of bioengineering problems.

An analogy with mechanical engineering

Synthetic biology is being developed as a way to streamline and standardize bioengineering processes. In this sense, we can picture it by analogy with mechanical engineering in the late 19th and early 20th century.

During the late 19th century, makers of clocks, sewing machines, and rifles were all developing the concept of interchangeable parts, allowing a hassle-free reuse of parts in the construction of products. Later, innovators like Henry Ford, began streamlining the process of manufacturing with the assembly line. This so-called "American system" of manufacturing opened the door to lower costs and higher rates of production than were possible before. This made these products more available and led to greater innovation as technologies spread.

In a similar fashion, the synthetic biology revolution hopes to standardize a "biological parts list" for bioengineering, similar to the interchangeable parts of the industrial revolution. At the same time, the overall biotech sector is looking to streamline and mechanize their development processes, much like the assembly line of Henry Ford.

Someday, one and the same

In short, synthetic biologists want to standardize bioengineering techniques to allow cheaper production, simpler innovation, better intellectual property protections, and clearer regulations. If that happens, there may very well be no distinction between synthetic biology and bioengineering.

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