This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

Synthetic biology is attracting attention from both scientists and regulators. But there is little agreement on what it is. Can we find a road out of synthetic biology’s definitional quagmire?

by Jim Thomas

Photo: Sfreimark

He was looking quite lost. An eminent scientist and UN delegate was stumbling over the meaning of a term that has been the subject of recent international debates: “synthetic biology.” Often called “extreme genetic engineering,” synthetic biology usually refers to new genetic engineering approaches that give technicians exacting control over an organism’s genome. But it’s not quite that easy.

“For several years I’ve been discussing and promoting the importance of assessing synthetic biology,” he explained at the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s scientific negotiations (SBSTTA 18) in Montreal. “Now I find myself not so sure what it even means”.

That same day, “green” laundry detergent maker Ecover responded to acampaign led by environmental and consumer groups demanding that the company stop using algal oil produced using synthetically modified organisms. Ecover, which had been identified a few weeks earlier by the New York Times
as the first consumer brand to openly use a synthetic biology-derived ingredient, now flatly denied doing any such thing.

In the New York Times article and previous conversations, the company had seemed comfortable using the “synthetic biology” moniker to describe their new ingredient. After tens of thousands of angry comments and petition signatures from consumers, they had changed their minds. But rather than withdraw the ingredient, they decided to re-draw the definition.

According to Ecover’s response, Synthetic biology is the process of creating DNA from scratch or inserting human-made DNA into an organism.” Having asserted this new, narrow definition, Ecover concluded that “allegations that we are using synthetic biology are untrue.”

Synthetic biology proponents in the business world were surprised. Maxx Chatsko of trade group SynBioBeta retorted that “The oils [Ecover] sourced from Solazyme are most certainly created with synthetic biology.”

Chattsko warned Ecover that it can’t “have it both ways”. “This could backfire if consumers feel they are being lied to or question why Ecover is going back and forth with definitions”.

Ecover is muddying the waters, but it didn’t create the confusion that it is exploiting. A recent survey identified 35 different definitions of synthetic biology.

Papers prepared for the Convention on Biodiversity last month identified specific Syn Bio techniques such as “directed evolution” and “metabolic engineering,” while some scientists pointed to new epigenetic and RNA manipulation techniques that don’t engage with DNA at all. Delegates referred to synthetic biology as a “basket” of varied and rapidly changing techniques. Todd Kuiken of the Woodrow Wilson Centre pointed out that two years ago, many synthetic biologists were embracing Gibson assembly (as in this fun video), but this year CRISPR, a genome editing technique, is all the rage. Next year it will be something different. (Ecover’s definition would include Gibson assembly but cut out CRISPR.)

The road to a shared definition of Syn Bio is riddled with disputes. Four years ago, the head of a US presidential inquiry remarked that if you get five synthetic biologists in a room, you will end up with six definitions. Responding to this quip, leading synthetic biologist Drew Endy advised the inquiry to “not stress out about it too much,” citing previous attempts that ended in frustration. At least one group of scholars has decided to pragmatically define synthetic biology as effectively “what synthetic biologists do.”

As more Syn Bio products enter the market however, neither tautology or the “don’t stress” approach will help the governments that are realizing that Syn Bio needs to be regulated, assessed and monitored.

Increasingly, industry strategy is to do away with the Syn Bio label altogether. At a public relations strategy meeting in San Francisco in may, representatives from synthetic biology companies agreed that the term “synthetic biology” was off-putting to consumers. They decided it would be better to call their products “fermentation-derived” or “nature-identical”.

Solazyme, the firm that provides Ecover’s algal oil, admitted to me some months back that they had dropped all references in their communications to “synthetic biology” around 2009. Before that, theirweb site and press releases had proudly declared that they were a “synthetic biology company.”

Before 2009, Solazyme also shared technical details of their “platform,”making it a little easier to assess exactly how they were tinkering with life. Now, they only offer euphemisms such as “optimised strains” and “working within natural oil-producing pathways”. In their recent statement,

Ecover concedes that their algal oil is genetically modified, but in the same breath asserts that “it’s just old fashioned fermentation”.

Solazyme provides some information to regulators, but not to the public. Recent attempts by the Centre for Food Safety to obtain information about Solazyme’s microbes produced 150 pages of entirely blacked out text, citing commercial confidentiality. Without a definition of synthetic biology and without information about what the synthetic biology companies are doing, synthetic biology seems more like an empty fundraising term than technology.

Despite challenges, there is a way through this definitional quagmire. Expert groups of the European Commission have just published a 40-page attempt at an “operational definition” of synthetic biology that is currently open for public comment. The analysis is excellent, but the resulting definition – though far better than Ecover’s – is probably too broad and not particularly “operational”.

It reads, in part:

“SynBio is the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms to alter living or non-living materials.”

A minority opinion in the same report provides a more concrete and sensible proposal. Synthetic biology, it explains, has clear hallmarks, concepts and approaches to look for. For starters: synthesis, rational design, artificiality, modular nature, complexity, and novelty. A sort of checklist can be drawn up that regulators can use to assess the techniques that made each new organism. Syn Bio is then defined as a process that uses any of the techniques or hallmarks on the list, which can be expanded over time.

It’s not the most elegant solution, but it’s probably the best one for a field where techniques and concepts are rapidly and constantly changing. A checklist that evolves along with the field would provide a way for international policymakers to know what they are regulating. It would also clear up any confusion that companies like Ecover might have about what they are using in products they sell to consumers.

Jim Thomas is a writer and researcher with the ETC Group – an international technology watchdog.