Sunday afternoon and Synthetic Biology 3.0 gets underway in high spirits amidst the glass and concrete of the ETH Campus. Host Sven Panke kicked off the conference promising that SynBio3.0 would have something for everyone -- the enthusiasts (clearly the majority), the curious and the skeptics (we guess that's us).
This was clearly the day for the geeks to strutt their stuff. Elder statesman and synthusiast George Church of Harvard Medical School set the pace with a breakneck stream of scientific dialect that was tough for even well studied biologists in the audience to follow. With fingers in more pies than he has fingers he's building minimal genomes, mirror-image ribosomes, new synthesis and sequencing methods and doing unfathomable things to e-coli while serving on various start-ups, editorial boards and studies. It was tiring just watching him.
Unfortunately by the time the 3rd or 4th presenter had (power)pointed out genetically translated electronic circuit diagrams mashed up with long maths equations, the suspicion was starting to creep in that maybe this really wasn't the place to use words like governance and regulation -- not unless it was metabolic regulation of Cdk1-cyclin B1 activation triggered via feedback loops involving distinct Cdc25 Isoforms... why exactly are we here again?
Most of the presentations involved teams who were emulating electronic components in bacteria -- oscillators mostly or ways of making cells count. As Pam Silver of Harvard explained: building such discrete parts is all about reimagining nature as a modular system and then testing the limits of that modular view. She too exuded exictement for programming life forms, saying that she has hopes Syn Bio will become "as cool as robotics" for students.
The clearest and most eloquent scientists were the youngest -- undergraduates from the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) -- all women-- who explained their research projects with the clarity and poise of professional TV science presenters.
Tomorrow the policy discussions begin.. allegedly.