Last week, Xconomy ran the first part of my conversation with Richard Kitney, a bioengineering professor at Imperial College London and a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology. We met in his campus office in November.
Kitney has coauthored hundreds of papers and helped galvanize U.K. government support for synthetic biology. He is also codirector of SynbiCITE, a national translational research center that has support from government and industry in an effort to turn synthetic biology into a major driver for the London region and the U.K. economy generally.
Some of the many products taking shape in the U.K. and elsewhere: medical diagnostics, fragrance and flavor substitutes, and biofuels. And as in any gold rush, many companies are moving aggressively to provide the tools and forge the deals needed to create synthetic biology products, while watchdogs call for a more deliberate pace to debate health, social, and ethical considerations.
“Synthetic biology” has always been a puzzling term to me. Prosthetic limbs are synthetic. Knee replacements are synthetic. Splicing the gene from one organism into another, a practice that began in the 1970s and gave rise to the biotechnology industry, is also a synthetic act.
But those things are not “synthetic biology” in the way the term is used today to describe… what, exactly? A new cross-discipline of biology and engineering? The transformation of cells into factories under our own control: cells as machines? Well, yes, but the biotech industry has been modifying cells—E. coli bacteria, Chinese hamster ovary cells, yeast—to become engines of production for a long time now.
So what’s the difference? That’s the question I began with last month when I sat down with a pioneer of the synthetic biology field, bioengineering professor Richard Kitney of Imperial College London, on the school’s campus. Along with researchers such as Tom Knight, Drew Endy, Pamela Silver, Craig Venter, and others, Dick Kitney has helped create the field, founding and chairing a veritable tower of academic departments and institutes, and co-authoring hundreds of papers, all of which, judging by the unruly state of his campus office, could easily be within arm’s length of anyone dropping by for a visit.