Hype cycle (Wikipedia). Let's hope synthetic biology can someday reach the plateau ...
Chronicle: ... The cost of genetic sequencing and synthesis continues to plunge, but the functions of many genes in even the simplest forms of life, like bacteria and yeast, stubbornly hold on to their secrets. Genetic networks interact in complex, mysterious ways. Engineered parts take wild, unexpected turns when inserted into genomes. And then evolution, a system that would drive any electrical engineer mad, tiptoes in.Don't miss the comments at the Chronicle, if you can stomach a view into modern hype-driven science. Contrast to the painstaking accumulation of statistical significance leading up to a Higgs announcement!
As synthetic biology passes from precocious youth toward maturity, it is returning home to academe. Collins sees an upside to that retrenchment: The science, once a domain of biological amateurs and outsiders, can now inform basic research into life's unending complexity.
Trim and tall, Collins, 47, has had a remarkable rise. A former physicist who, until the late 1990s, knew little about molecular biology, he wears his laurels—MacArthur "genius," Rhodes scholar, Howard Hughes investigator—lightly. If you're outside the field, you'd have little idea he's considered a founder of synthetic biology.
But what is the field, exactly? As one engineer once quipped, ask five people the definition of synthetic biology, you'll get six different answers, because one person is bound to be conflicted. It's a field where most of its practitioners consider its most visible success—Craig Venter and company's wiring together of a microbial genome in 2010—to be an impressive technical feat, but not synthetic biology. The phrase has subsumed whole disciplines. Many scientists who once practiced genetic engineering, methods relatively unchanged, now operate under the grant-friendly halo of synthetic biology. ...
"The hype is a thing that's hurt the field," Collins said. "Some in the community are hyping our capabilities well beyond where we're at. I think it's better to be a bit sober. I think it's fine to speak to emerging applications and emerging capabilities, but to really qualify where we are at and what we can do now, versus what might this field bring decades down the line."
The problem with synthetic biology is characterization. This takes time and isn't sexy. I did it for 3 years, trying to properly characterize different promoter, reporter combinations. I painstakingly ground out a bit of data, but not enough for publication, and a career over before it ever began. In the era of publish or perish you quickly ligate genetic elements together, take a few quick measurements, and bang it out to the journals with a few headline grabbing keywords in the abstract. When the rubber hits the road with biotech or medical applications, the wheels fall off the wagon. Much of it could be attributed to "show boating", but in the fight for funding, the hype machine has to go into over-drive. I saw the same wave of hysteria in systems biology, and it carried on into synthetic biology, and it will move into the "big thing". But what do you do? Play down your work in the media frenzy world we live in, or go for broke?I was very suspicious of the synthetic biology hucksters I first encountered five years or so ago, and it turns out my instincts were correct.