Synthia, the transplant of a single synthetic genome, does not inherently change the biosafety landscape of synthetic biology (sometimes called the “halfpipe of doom”) but it does place the discussion in a more prominent, public and hopefully open and thoughtful position. A poll last year showed that while only 20% of people had heard of synthetic biology, 90% thought that the public should be better informed about groundbreaking research. Today, synthetic biology is harder to ignore and there are more ways than ever to learn about what is going on in labs around the world and to have your voice heard. Science magazine has set up an open forum on their website for questions, comments, and discussion on the topic with a lot of people contributing from many different viewpoints and perspectives.
Synthia is important for showing what big budgets and bigger patience can do, and for continuing and broadening the public discussion on synthetic biology. Synthetic biology will continue to grow slowly from many different directions, with new and potentially useful genetic networks designed and inserted into natural or redesigned synthetic genomes. It’s important to understand how these technologies work, their potential benefits and risks, as well as their limitations. Synthia isn’t going to make you live forever and there probably won’t ever be any mer-Venters, but designed bacteria growing in controlled environments have been producing useful chemicals for a while now and the technology will certainly get better over the next few years with more advances in synthetic biology. After that, who knows? The possibilities are endless and it’s up to all of us to make sure that it’s good for everyone.