This exciting field is evolving so rapidly that no widely accepted definitions exist. Common across many explanations is the idea of synthetic biology as the application of engineering principles to the fundamental components of biology. Some commonly used definitions are:
“Synthetic biology is a) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems and b) the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.” “Synthetic biology is an emerging area of research that can broadly be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.”
A lightly broader definition which also provides information on some of the areas where it is used is this: Synthetic biology aims to make biology easier to engineer. Synthetic biology is the convergence of advances in chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering that enables us to go from idea to product faster, cheaper, and with greater precision than ever before. It can be thought of as a biology-based “toolkit” that uses abstraction, standardization, and automated construction to change how we build biological systems and expand the range of possible products. A community of experts across many disciplines is coming together to create these new foundations for many industries, including medicine, energy and the environment. (https://www.ebrc.org/what-is-synbio)
Another definition points to the link between synthetic biology and biotechnology: Synthetic biology represents the latest phase in the development of biotechnology, in which scientists are gaining unprecedented control in programming new biological functions by rewriting the genetic code. This allows them to ‘design’ and ‘create’ micro-organisms that may perform a variety of useful tasks. At the same time these organisms are becoming increasingly more estranged from those we may find in nature. (https://www.synenergene.eu/information/what-synthetic-biology). As the Synthetic Biology Center at MIT explains, “The key is the development of an engineering methodology based on standardized and well-characterized interchangeable parts. Biological systems can be a basis for practical programmable materials, providing an engineering substrate with exquisite control over and response to the chemical world” (http://synbio.mit.edu/).
Types of research
According to Newcastle University, Synthetic biology research can be split broadly into three categories: new approaches, technologies and tools, the application of synthetic biology and the ethical, legal and social implications of synthetic biology (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/csbb/research/). A research report from Allied Market Research estimated that the synthetic biology market could reach $38.7 billion by 2020 (http://www.bio-itworld.com/Press-Release/Synthetic-Biology-Market-is-Expected-to-Reach-$38-7-Billion,-Globally,-by-2020—Allied-Market-Research/). Information on another report which also provides information on the different regions in the world and the companies that dominate this field is available at https://www.futuremarketinsights.com/reports/synthetic-biology-market.
Synthetic biology and defence
It is not surprising that the Department of Defense and its research arm Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have taken the lead in research in SB. It has also begun to fund it. “The organization had increased its investment to $100 million per year by 2014. Funding increases were followed by the creation of the DARPA program Living Foundries: Advanced Tools and Capabilities for Generalizable Platforms, which sought to increase the speed and decrease the cost of generating new production strains of organisms. This program started in 2012, and in 2014, Living Foundries transitioned to a new program, Living Foundries: 1000 Molecules, which will invest $110 million through 2019 to enable facilities to generate organisms capable of producing 1,000 molecules of industrial and defense interests. These funds are going to a diverse group of projects. Some are incredibly broad, such as funding provided to MIT’s Broad Institute to advance our ability to assemble large genetic systems. Other projects have a specific, discrete purpose, such as the DARPA–funded biotech startup Ginkgo Bioworks, which is developing probiotics to help prevent common infections for soldiers” https://www.oreilly.com/ideas/darpa-and-the-future-of-synthetic-biology.
Synthetic biology and health
The UK government too has been interested in SB. Asking ‘Is synthetic biology the key to health?’, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten says that “In January, the UK government announced a funding injection of £40 million to boost synthetic biology research, adding three new Synthetic Biology Research Centres (SBRCs) in Manchester, Edinburgh and Warwick. The additional funding takes the UK’s total public spending on synthetic biology to £200 million – an investment that hints at the commercial potential of synthetic biology” (https://www.elsevier.com/connect/is-synthetic-biology-the-key-to-health). Committed to research in SB, The Institut Pasteur says that “The rise of emerging pathogens and antibiotic resistances is becoming a major public health issue. Using engineering principles we are creating new strategies to quickly decipher the mechanisms of bacterial virulence and provide tools to specifically kill antibiotic resistant and virulent bacteria” (https://research.pasteur.fr/en/team/synthetic-biology/).
Developing Standards for Synthetic Biology
Clearly, in a field such as this, there is an obvious need to develop standards. RAND Corporation made a study at the behest of the British Standards Institute. As it explains, “At the request of the British Standards Institution, researchers identified the impact the adoption of synthetic biology is likely to have on the global marketplace, as well as barriers to preventing the rapid scale-up and commercialisation of the technology. One notable finding is that companies think standards will help reduce uncertainty and help to overcome a variety of barriers they encounter en-route to commercialization” (https://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/synthetic-biology-standards.html).
The story so far
To understand the evolution of the subject, you may consider reading this from year-2000 Nature article http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/synbio/index.html, as it provides useful information on milestones in SB and many related themes. The United States is home to many centers and research programmes. Keen as it is retain its leadership, it has defined a roadmap as you can read at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405805X1630031X.
An excellent introduction to the subject and its evolution to where it is today is this article in http://www.explainingthefuture.com/synthetic_biology.html, which also discusses its many applications.