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New Breeds: Discovering Synthetic Biology

By J. Mark Waxman and John M. Garvey, PhD

J. Mark Waxman and John M. Garvey are partners in the Boston office of Foley & Lardner LLP.  Mr. Waxman is the chair of the firm’s health care industry team.  Dr. Garvey is an intellectual property lawyer and a member of Foley’s life sciences and nanotechnology industry teams and the biotechnology & pharmaceutical practice.

The goal of synthetic biology is the construction of productive systems from man- made, biologically-based parts, standardized to be as uniform and universally compatible as electrical circuit components.  It is described as a hybrid field—a combination of synthetic chemistry, biology and engineering1—and if successful, if oligonucleotides can be assembled as easily and almost as cheaply as Lego bricks, “synbio” has the potential to transform materials science much like capacitors, transistors and integrated circuits transformed electronics. 

The discipline promises sweeping achievements.  Microengineered synbio devices hold the potential to be tailored to a broad variety of tasks, from medical diagnostics and therapeutics activities to the production of energy; or in less benign fashion, the production of weapons.  

Evidence of synbio’s positive potential is rich at the benchside: organisms that secret...

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