What is synthetic biology and why does it matter?


About the topic: Products developed using recombinant DNA methods account for over $300 billion in annual U.S. domestic revenues, underlying a so-called “bioeconomy” that has grown 10-15% annually since the invention of genetic engineering ~40 years ago. Yet most of biotechnology has not been imagined let alone made true.  I will review the last decade of work to make biology easier to engineer, from basic science to applied tools.  Particular attention will be given to two underlying trends that are having policy impacts beyond research labs: (i) interconversion of physical genetic material and digital sequence information via advancing DNA sequence and synthesis tools, (ii) coordination of labor across time and place via technical standards supporting composition, measurement, and data exchange.

About the speaker: Drew works on “synthetic biology.”  His group invented genome refactoring to both study and extend the utility of bacteriophage.  His team also realized non-volatile chromosomal digital data storage, amplifying genetic logic gates, and cell-cell communication via engineered DNA messaging.  He led the BIOFAB team that engineered a professional collection of reliably reusable standard biological parts and started the BioBricks Foundation (BBF) as a charity supporting development of a free-to-use language for programming life to benefit all people and the planet.  In 2013 Drew was recognized by the White House for the BBF’s contributions to “open science” and received the Seymour Benzer lectureship from the US NAS.