This post and those which follow should really be going up on the Nature Newsblog (part of my day-job duties as the chief news and features editor of that great journal), but due to a fairly predictable snafu which is mostly my fault I don't seem to be able to post there at the moment, so I'm putting it up here and will probably get it cross posted there in due course. Alert readers will notice that what follows is not very martian, and those whose interest in planets doesn't extend to attempts to rewire the life forms of this one are advised to skip it.
It's always fun to come to a conference where something is afoot -- where there's not just a bunch of presentations, but a genuine agenda. The first synthetic biology conference, at MIT two years ago, was such a conference -- an attempt to bring together a whole bunch of people working on a diverse bunch of technologies and scientific approaches that are made possible by cheap DNA synthesis, and to some extent to establish the pre-eminence among those approaches of the vision of synthetic biology then being championed at MIT. That vision is of a world where biological circuits can be designed from scratch, using "biobricks", in an analgous way to electronic circuits, but with standardised sequences of DNA and the proteins they describe taking the place of resistors, transistors, diodes and the like. The conference was the basis of a feature I wrote on synthetic biology for Wired in my previous existence.
Two years on, here we all are at Synthetic Biology 2.0, the followup conference, at UC Berkley. And again its a conference with an agenda. Or, more properly, many agendas. The main one, I think, is to reassert the message of Synthetic Biology 1.0 -- that lots of different things people are doing with different biological systems can be treated as a coherent emerging discipline. But there are also a bunch of other things going on, among them: an attempt to show that this sort of stuff has real world applications, especially in the energy arena; a showcase for the fact that this technology has commercial possibilities (various companies have sprung up in the field in the past two years, including Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics and Codon Devices, which boasts on its board Drew Endy, the most eloquent of the proponents of the "MIT vision" described above; an attempt to get the nasc ent community to agree how to regulate itself and to avoid this technology being used for naughty purposes; a window to show the world that this technology, well regulated, can be a force for good.
Not all these agendas are necessarily aligned. For example, without being unduly cynical, there could be commercial applications, at least in the short term, even if there aren't dramatic real world applications. And self regulation could easily co-exist with, or indeed reinforce, public worries. And not everyone here will sign up to all or indeed any of them. So it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds, especially on the third day, where the science and society implications are going to be discussed. (Disclaimer: I will be moderating one of the sessions on that day.)