So What? Wild Ideas that Matter
Scientists have been getting the two-word question probably as long as they have been making reproducible experimental observations. Today, it’s a question that is as likely to come up during a holiday dinner with family as it is during funding debates on Capitol Hill. “So what?” Why does the latest paper on neuronal connections in a tiny worm matter? What’s the point of putting time and money (and six years of a graduate student’s life) into plotting curves on a graph to explain the size and shape of a protein? While there have always been good reasons to do this basic research on fundamental questions, tangible, accessible results are not always obvious to the public. Now, though, synthetic biology is beginning to piece together these results into remarkable new products, with potential implications for everything from medical care to space exploration.
To use an obvious example, hearing Craig Venter speak is paradoxically both mesmerizing and ridiculous. The ideas being investigated by his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute are absurd, and yet they are being constructed into real products. A home vaccine “3D printer”, a hydrogen-producing bacterium, and self-replicating synthetic microbial cells are all at various stages of development. Of course, Venter is only the most vocal and visible member of the synthetic biology community; these wild ideas are being developed by countless groups worldwide. Just in the last couple of years, the proliferation of the CRISPER-CAS systems has significantly altered how scientists go about manipulating genetic material in experimental settings. Indeed, even the public is going hands-on with science, a topic that contributor Aakriti Jain discusses in an upcoming article on biohack spaces.
More than Just the Science: The Potential of Synthetic Biology
Ultimately, synthetic biology presents a number of unique opportunities for scientists. It is, by definition, the application of basic research to build complex biological systems de novo. To do so, synthetic biology demands – again, by definition – new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration. The projects undertaken by synthetic biologists have the potential to create new categories of products for clinical use. Moreover, these new ideas and products present scientists with opportunities to engage the public in new ways. This aspect of synthetic biology should not be overlooked. With some care and creativity, the complex biological systems that we are engineering and building can be used as “show-and-tell” items that are perhaps more tangible than many of the fundamental results produced by basic research. Of course, communicating the science behind these products, as well as their value, will come with its own set of challenges. (One need look no further than the widespread misunderstandings regarding GMOs to see this.) Realistically, we know the challenges associated with synthetic biology and research in general. The differences between what happens on a daily basis at the bench and the breathless news articles reporting on the same work are significant. The word “revolutionary” is used ad nauseam, while the incremental gains are often overlooked. Again, this gap represents an opportunity for the synthetic biology community to engage the public and communicate more effectively.
Put simply, synthetic biology is uniquely suited to answering the question “so what?” This is what has attracted me to working with the community here. It is exciting to see scientists bringing together discoveries from diverse fields to produce novel biological systems, and I applaud PLOS for creating a forum designed to help facilitate that process. However, the success of this site – cliché though this may sound – is dependent on the scientists and contributors who spend time here. It is critical that we have your support and feedback, and so it is worth reviewing our goals for this community and what we need from you to make it happen.
Grab a Pen and a Napkin: What We Need From You
As alluded to above, the overarching goal of the PLOS Synthetic Biology Community is to provide a forum for the presentation and discussion of the field. In turn, we hope that this facilitates new interactions within science, as well as between scientists and the public. We want to help scientists expand the understanding of synthetic biology to encompass the true extent of this field, moving past the general perception of “synthetic biology = GMOs.” Of course, referencing “the true extent of this field” presupposes a working definition of “synthetic biology.” Here then is a primary goal of this site, to help develop and refine a working definition of synthetic biology. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s synbio project lists several definitions culled from various sources. We want to continue this discussion and begin to figure out where the boundaries of the field are. I would therefore ask that anyone coming to this site take some time to write out what you are doing as a synthetic biologist, how you see your work fitting in with the field as a whole, and how you define “synthetic biology.” As this site evolves, there will be many opportunities to discuss these ideas and, perhaps, help build a cohesive lexicon.
Additionally, it is worth considering how you and your colleagues currently communicate with each other and with the public. Again, we want to provide you with opportunities to discuss how you talk about your work, and exchange ideas on how to do that well. Similarly, consider taking a lunch break to sketch out some new ideas for disseminating information. The more wacky the idea the better, isn’t that the fun of science? Or, put another way, as scientists working to create novel biological systems using bleeding edge technology, why not take some of that innovation and apply it to our systems of communication? The past two years, GE Life Sciences has sponsored a super-resolution microscopy contest, the winners of which are shown on screens in Times Square. Stuff like this is great, as it literally highlights the beauty and excitement of science. I can’t guarantee that PLOS will sponsor any skywriting or Super Bowl advertisements (actually, I can guarantee that won’t happen), but we’re innovators, so why not put your wild idea out there?
Where to Find Us
Finally, for the nuts and bolts of this site, I would ask that you follow us on Twitter (@PLOSSynbio), subscribe to updates via email, and give us your honest feedback (SynbioCommunity@plos.org). Let us know what you think of the community, the content, the format, and whatever else comes to mind. If you have ideas for articles or topics that should be highlighted, let us know. Even better, contribute a piece to the SynBio blog yourself. Email us or fill out the form here with your idea, and we’ll talk details and get you into the rotation.
Building an online community isn’t a new idea, but we believe that this particular project represents a unique opportunity to help scientists develop a new field. Thanks in advance for your support, and we look forward to seeing you back here on the site.
– David Shifrin, PLOS Synthetic Biology Community Editor