Editorial: Gripped by synthetic biology

Eureka moments usually come when you're doing something quite ordinary. Archimedes is said to have coined the expression after a brainwave in the bath. Thousands of years later, Kary Mullin was driving on California Highway 128 when he thought of a technique that was to revolutionise biotechnology and win him a Nobel Prize. 

Mullin's polymerase chain reaction tool is now used in everything from anthropology to synthetic biology. It's become the DNA equivalent of the Gutenberg press, but now scientists are building the word processor for DNA. The story kicks off this biotech special issue.

Aubrey de Grey is a software engineer turned bio engineer who has set out to tackle the age-old problem of getting old. "I try to inspire people that I'm not crazy," he says in our interview with him. "It's so bleeding obvious that ageing is the No.1 problem." We asked him whether he really had a Eureka moment, when he came up with an idea for curing cancer, halfway through a litre of beer in 2002. His recollection of the event was very slightly different.

This month's cover and my picture here hint at the strangest Eureka moment I've heard about for a long time. Typically, for an unsqueamish zoologist, James Weaver didn't just run around screaming "Aaaaagh! Get it off me, get it off me!" when a fierce squid attached itself to his arm. Instead, he started wondering what it was that made its soft suckers so powerful and you can find out in this issue how the answer could lead to new plastics based on proteins, where you can also discover how the squid's beak could lead to new adhesives.

Also in this issue's manufacturing section, we have a feature on the new Synthetic Biomanufacturing Center in the US, and its goal to use biobricks (off-the-shelf biological building blocks) to develop bacteria that can act as solar or chemical powered mini-factories to make everything from medicines to fuels. In our power engineering section, we take a closer look at the use of synthetic biology to produce fourth-generation biofuels made by 'milking' microbes rather than having to kill them.

The growing biotech industry is now producing vast amounts of data and we look at how text mining and Web 2.0 techniques could help biologists get more out of it.

However, if you only read one article on synthetic biology in this issue then make time for "Evolution's war on design" by Chris Edwards. Find out how evolution is so powerful that it's actually getting in the way and how European labs are learning to harness it.

Synthetic biology is where biology meets engineering but it is more like engineering than life sciences. The father of the field Professor Tom Knight - one of our candidates for the 25 most influential engineers [new window], whom you can still vote for started as an electronics engineer. He and Drew Endy will be in Cambridge later this month for an important event in the biotech calendar: IET BioSysBio. At around the same time, the IET will be launching a new subject area for life sciences as part of our Knowledge Network here on this website.

Will all these new breakthroughs, ideas and innovations all lead to something concrete? We'll have to wait and see, but it's the simmering potential that makes this new area of engineering so exciting.

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