Term confusion: Synthetic biology, Biohacking, DIYbio

There seems to be some confusion as to what these concepts mean and how they differ. I'll make an attempt at clarification and explain what these three terms - Synthetic biology, DIYbio, Biohacking - mean to me.

Synthetic biology (synbio): This is an academic field of study that moves the focus from biology as an activity of observation to one of manipulation. One motivation here is that of understanding by synthesis, much like a beginning electronics enthusiast would build a circuit from scratch to understand how the different components interact, what happens when you leave out one component, how the behaviour of the circuit changes when you use a different resistor etc.
Apart from this, one important idea in the synbio community seems to be that biotechnology should become a true engineering discipline, which requires standardization, abstraction, modularization, and componentization. This is the spirit behind BioBricks and the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

DIYbio: Do-it-yourself biology. I think this is a bit of a misnomer. DIY biology has been around for a long time - think of hobbyists collecting and identifying bugs or plants, or bird-watching. The current excitement is more about DIY biotechnology - modifying biological organisms or analyzing their genomes in your garage, using the ever-growing tool box of DNA sequencing, DNA synthesis and genetic engineering. It's about appropriation and diffusion of an up-and-coming technology by amateur enthusiasts.

Biohacking: Possibly the fuzziest of the three terms. I consider biohacking a niche of DIYbio, one with a subversive edge, and it is more of a mindset than anything else. It's about figuring out how DNA forensics works and how it can be subverted, creating knowledge and methods for all to use outside the patent thicket of present-day biotech, designing and building tools that deliberately undercut the high-price market of lab equipment, developing and distributing home test kits for known genetic modifications in food, or reverse engineering the fiercely protected software at work in today's DNA sequencers.

So there. Comments welcome.


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