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Analysis: Synthesis

Life is not what it used to be. Living things bearing genomes pared down, streamlined, or cobbled together from bits of synthesized DNA now scurry, swim, and flourish in test tubes and glass bioreactors: viruses named for computer software, bacteria encoding passages of James Joyce, chimeric yeast buckling under the metabolic strain of genes harvested from sweet wormwood, petunias, and microbes from Icelandic thermal pools.

In the final years of the twentieth century, émigrés from mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science resolved that if the aim of biology was to understand life, then making life would yield better theories than would experimentation. Many of these researchers clustered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) beginning in 2003. Naming themselves synthetic biologists, they advocate not experiment but manufacture, not reduction but construction, not analysis but synthesis. As a cultural anthropologist, I spent eight years talking to and working with them.

Armed with biotechnology techniques—notably, faster and cheaper methods for DNA sequencing and synthesis—this new breed of life scientists treats biological media as a substrate for manufacture, raw material that can be manipulated using engineering principles borrowed from their various home disciplines. Sequencing and synthesis allow synthetic biologists to traffic between physical molecules of nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) and dematerialized genetic sequences scrolling across computer screens. Sequencing means “reading” the strings of four nucleotide bases whose sequence constitutes DNA and RNA to compose a digital genetic “code” made up entirely of letters that stand in for the molecule (A for the nucleotide adenine, C for cytosine, G for guanine, T for thymine). Synthesis does the reverse: using elaborate genomic techniques, researchers can physically build material nucleic acid macromolecules to order on the basis of desired genetic codes.

Two synthetic biologists define their field as follows:

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