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What’s in a Name? Defining and Relating Synthetic Biology to Biomedical Engineering

Brendan Grue - January 7, 2019

Juliet pleaded: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”, when referring to the irrelevance of Romeo’s rival family name of Montague in William Shakespeare’s famous play. Perhaps this draws analogy to the possible arbitrariness of naming the fields of synthetic biology as well as biomedical engineering. Would synthetic biology still hold similar associated sociological and scientific cogitations if called artificial or manufactured biology?

Like myself, you may have heard the classic physico-centric phrase from your high school physics teacher that all biology is chemistry, and all chemistry is physics. In a way, this may be true, but why then are these broad fields defined separately? Why aren’t all science courses listed under the department of physics or math? Why is it important to have a clear definition of these fields in the first place? Is synthetic biology simply just the next buzzword to induce new excitement in the already existing field of biomedical engineering?

Image credit: Brendan Grue

Image credit: Brendan Grue

Biomedical engineering (BME) and synthetic biology are in some ways very similar, but also distinct fields. This relationship makes defining and separating the two quite difficult. As interdisciplinary fields, multiple definitions may apply to each. If we are to ask Wikipedia, BME is defined as: “-the application of engineering principles and design concepts to medicine and biology for healthcare purposes”. While synthetic biology is defined as: “an interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering – [combining many] disciplines to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications”.

Perhaps these fields are not completely mutually exclusive as some may think. Were these fields separated and labelled in an attempt to seem revolutionary towards funding agencies? From these definitions it is unclear whether these two fields are even separate, or rather just subdisciplines of one another. Some believe synthetic biology is sometimes wrongfully accused as being simply genetic engineering in disguise (not to trivialize the later), when it may not be engineering at all, instead a modification or rearrangement of existing biological systems. In genetic engineering, it is thought that the function of the transferred gene is still that of what occurs in nature, think human insulin production in bacteria, whereas synthetic biology creates end products with original or novel functions.

Through defining synthetic biology as a technological field apart from biochemistry and molecular biology and particularly systems biology, we change the way we perceive and treat this area of biology as a society from a natural understanding perspective to a goods, means, and ends framework. This perception may peak the interest in the public and those responsible for the funding of new areas of research, since synthetic biology is more interested in the application of biology to create useful systems capable of fulfilling needs, or wants, in a changing society. In addition to funding and resource allocation, defining a new area of science as distinct from existing areas may contribute further towards proper intellectual knowledge transfer in addition to multi-sector translation.

Coming back to the relationship between synthetic biology and BME, to the layperson, they may seem to be analogous terms. To the respective research communities however, their borders are more clear. Traditionally dominated by molecular biologists, synthetic biology aims largely to construct biological systems that do not exist in nature, utilizing genetic manipulation. Biomedical engineers on the other hand are thought of as engineers first, biologists second, usually possessing native tongue in the maths and physics as opposed to cellular biology and medicine. BME is largely focused upon providing inorganic solutions to healthcare needs, while synthetic biology approaches these healthcare problems, as well as problems from various other sectors, in an organic way often through the use of engineered biomolecules or living cells. In terms of applications, the engineers are thought to have an end commercial product in mind whereas this may not be the goal of the synthetic biologist, who often use synthetic biology as a tool to better understand natural systems.

A bridge between synthetic biology and BME, along with other related fields for that matter, is required to allow those working on individual components of a larger project to take the other parts for granted, otherwise known as decoupling. In this way, a single area or research group isn’t limited to its own technical expertise when deciding what it can create. Instead, those involved in the design of future synthetic biological systems are not bound to what they are themselves experts in, rather higher-level systems can be created through the application of many different experts each bringing forward single components, referred to by some as abstraction.

This ideology may however be somewhat simplistic and inherently ignorant of true biological systems, stemming from its inorganic mechanical framework and underappreciation for complex biological interactions, context dependence of parts, and responses to the environment. It may be neat to think of designed biological systems or organisms in a modular way, but final, often unpredicted, interactions between implemented parts can foil expected design outcomes, requiring ongoing redesign.

It is difficult to draw the line on what should and should not be included in both the fields of BME and synthetic biology. It may seem that their definition as a construct may be bureaucratic in nature. However, as was mentioned previously, there is utility in seeking distinct definitions for these subdisciplines, particularly regarding regulatory classification in relation to ethics, safety, security, funding, and intellectual property management. Examples of these issues relating to regulatory classification may come from the differences between classifying medical devices vs. engineered cells/biomolecules regarding health treatments, as well as the laws surrounding the patenting of medical devices compared to engineered genetic information and living organisms.

Even though there may be some utility in keeping BME and synthetic biology as separate fields, melting of their borders should be facilitated when speaking towards future educational programs and technological innovation and collaboration. Synthetic biology may just be the next natural extension of science, mirroring that of which was done with chemistry in the 19th century to form the field of synthetic chemistry and chemical engineering which contributed to early drug synthesis and the production of consumer goods. Synthetic biology may be a product of our heightened knowledge of analytic biology, like the earlier analytic to synthetic shift in chemistry. As was seen with the explosion of synthetic chemistry, the resultant economic and social impact of synthetic biology is not to be undersold. The impact of synthetic biology, and its combination with biomedical engineering techniques and knowledge, translates far beyond the health field, reaching energy, environment, agricultural, and even computing and data management sectors.

Brendan GrueComment