What's Synthetic Biology?

Researchers transplanted the genomes of Mycoplasma capricolum bacterium into Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium in 2007. They later accomplished the same trick with a synthetic genome in 2010. (Image credit: J. Craig Venter Institute.)

Synthetic biology aims to use science and engineering to make or redesign living organisms. Researchers create new genetic codes that do not already exist in nature, even if they base their work on existing genetic sequences.

Synthetic biology builds on earlier genetic engineering methods, and has many of the same goals. But the work differs from traditional genetic engineering , which recombines existing DNA sequences to change the genetic makeup of organisms.

Possible benefits of synthetic biology include making new microbes to fight cancer and other diseases, as well as creating new, cheaper medicines or vaccines. It could even lead to new organisms that provide cleaner, cheaper energy compared with today's fossil fuels, or help clean up pollutants such as oil spills in the environment.

But some experts worry that synthetic organisms could behave in unexpected ways that might harm the environment. Specially engineered organisms, such as a superbug version of the flu, might become biological weapons of mass destruction, they speculate.

Critics also have problems with the idea of creating synthetic life, based on moral or religious objections. The ability to create synthetic organisms may also raise questions about how humans define life.

Jeremy Hsu is a senior writer for LiveScience, a sister site to Life's Little Mysteries.

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Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.