A Plea for Standards in Synthetic Biology

… the promise of SynBio for the benefit of global society and industry will only be met if significant advances are achieved on the standardisation front.

[The long journey towards standards for engineering biosystems, EMBO Rep (2020) e50521, https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.202050521]

A joint group of of experts in synthetic biology (SynBio) and standardisation demands ‘the merger of technical consistency and scientific soundness with legal requirements and consensus among end users’, in order ‘to gather key players in a permanent forum with the aim of making biological standards one of the ingredients of the 4th Industrial Revolution.’

In a newly published ‘manifesto’ entitled ‘The long journey towards standards for engineering biosystems – Are the Molecular Biology and the Biotech communities ready to standardise?’ (EMBO Rep (2020) e50521), the group argues that Synthetic Biology (SynBio) increasingly required scientific, technical, operational and semantic standards for the field to become a full‚Äźfledged engineering discipline. ‘From software to nuts and bolts, the concept of a universally usable toolbox of parts to assemble more complex systems is typical for every discipline of engineering: electronics, software, mechanical design, architecture, chemical synthesis and so on. Standards enable people to work together through interoperability, coordination of labour, reproducibility and reuse of other people’s efforts and achievements’, the authors explain.

However, the authors also recognise that …

Scientists and engineers will adopt standards only when they add value to their efforts to overcome the often steep costs of adoption.


Supported by the BioRoboost Project (H2020‚ÄźNMBP‚ÄźTR‚ÄźIND‚Äź2018‚Äź2020/BIOTEC‚Äź01‚Äź2018 (CSA), Project ID 820699) in their effort to not only highlight the need for standards in biology, but to also elucidate the force-field of key actors in the standards conversation and the challenges these are meeting, the authors follow the pattern of the history of technology adoption, in order to plot the likely trajectory of acceptance of biological standards:

Adoption curve of/for biological standards
[source: The long Journey towards Standards for Engineering Biosystems, EMBO REP (2020) e50521, https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.202050521]

The figure above illustrates that ‘SynBio standards are largely still in the innovator phase but with a few examples having progressed to the early adopters or early majority segments. Many developments, even if critical for the early years in SynBio, never left the innovator state and are now outdated.’

… standards are ultimately social constructs to represent norms, objects or procedures, and that they become accepted by a group of individuals for practical reasons.


Nevertheless, the group of experts concludes that ‘[d]espite the difficulties, it should be possible to come up with science‚Äźbased standardisation proposals in SynBio that work across the biological, the digital and the social realms.’

‘Journal editors also have a role to play as well as reviewers of journal articles and grant proposals in insisting on the use of standards to improve reproducibility and reuse.’

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