terrarium Synthetic biology projects are like a terrarium. With more sharing, we can build ecosystems. Photo credit Sonny Abesamis on Flickr.
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In synthetic biology, it’s not only what you measure, but how you share it.

Scientists and engineers are doing amazing things with synthetic biology. Amazing at multiple levels: natural subsystems are repurposed, extensively engineered, and multiple interactive elements are integrated into living organisms to do useful work. Our abilities are advancing, and we are able to manage complexity almost to the level of whole natural systems. New engineering techniques are being developed and deployed, and our collective imagination is expanding.

I’m convinced that some of our next amazing growth is going to come from being able to share. Sharing is a basic social intercourse, dating to the first shared food holding our clans together. While our synthetic biology clan is collaborative, we haven’t refined our tools for sharing. Good sharing is predictable, accurate, low-friction, and low-risk. That’s going to look like being able to accurately adopt each other’s innovations while protecting, assuring, and valuing property rights, being able to price transactions to support markets, and being able to use each other’s biological parts with confidence in function, context, and interactions.

From terrariums to ecosystems

I’ve used the metaphor of terrariums when describing synthetic biology projects — some elegant projects are like a great terrarium, I can’t take my eyes off of it! — but it stops at the glass wall. So, the brilliance of these projects might not systematically translate and interoperate with the brilliance of the terrarium on the next shelf. What’s it going to take to change the game and turn the terrarium walls into permeable membranes? What’s it going to take for synthetic biology to evolve into an ecosystem?

Other science and engineering domains have developed and adopted systematic ways to share and build on each other’s innovations. Sharing measurement results is at the core of sharing technology — your stuff has to “fit” with my stuff, whether that fit is size, rate, composition… or any property of the stuff.

The International System of Units (the “SI”) is the platform we’ve agreed upon for sharing data, measurement results, technical information, specifications — and ensuring interoperability of science and technology. It’s part of the basic infrastructure underpinning our technological society.

Improving standards, improving harmony

Establishing a common, comprehensive, harmonious representation of measurement results has been a foundation for the rolling industrial revolutions we’ve experienced in the past couple of centuries. The SI was codified in the Treaty of the Metre in 1875, coincident with mechanization and urbanization of society. Technologies have either offered disruptive advances in the SI (for instance, when standards based on quantum phenomena — the Josephson Junction and the Quantum Hall Effect — came on the scene in 1990), or when technical disruption was facilitated by advances in measurement science (electrical measurements enabled intercontinental telephony by letting us develop and maintain undersea cables).

It was terrific to be in the room last November when the global metrology community came together for the most comprehensive, historic revision of the International System of Units. Scientists from 54 nations unanimously agreed on November 16, 2018 to redefine the kilogram, and with it the SI itself. The SI is now fully defined by unchanging fundamental properties of nature — the last remaining artifact definition has been deprecated.

One of the swag pieces for the attendees was a plastic card with the SI described completely on it. Anyone can now carry the SI in their pocket. Beyond the scientific and technical advances this represents, we’ve assured universal, open access to our scientific units.

Our ability to share is fundamental to humanity, and humanity came together to make this happen.

The frontiers of metrology in biology

I was at the meeting to offer a perspective on our needs in bioscience — the Frontiers of Metrology in Biology. It’s clear that we should aspire to develop the standards framework that lets us accurately use each other’s work. We need good ways to share biological stuff, data, and knowledge. When we can effectively share, the exchange of materials, knowledge, and ideas will enable commerce, reproducibility, reliability, interoperability,  scientific advance, and cooperation.

So, it’s not only what you measure, but how you can tell somebody else what result you got.

Marc Salit

Marc Salit

Marc Salit is a co-founder and Director of the NIST-Stanford Joint Initiative for Metrology in Biology (JIMB, https://jimb.stanford.edu). JIMB is operated by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on behalf of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Marc worked in metrology in chemistry, physics, and biology at NIST from 1990-2018, founding JIMB with Arend Sidow and Drew Endy of Stanford University. His work with the consultative committees of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures was formative for his scientific perspective and his commitment to realizing value for global stakeholders in emerging bioscience disciplines.

JIMB is a platform to connect NIST science, technology, and metrology to the creative power of Stanford University's research, Faculty Groups, and Medical School -- embedded in the innovation hub of Silicon Valley. JIMB is building on NIST's relationships with industry to assure focus on biometrology that makes a difference. JIMB is powered by the partnership of .com, .gov, and .edu in developing foundational metrology so bioscience realizes its potential as the technology of the 21st Century.

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