When Henry Ford standardised the Model T automobile components and the workers’ tasks at the Ford Motor Company assembly line in the early 20th century, he created a system so efficient, that the word “Fordism” became almost instantly synonymous with his new model of mass production. By the late 1910s, the affordable Model Ts made up more than half of all cars owned in the United States.

Standards paved the way for technological modernisation. In time, they have marked the success of huge fields like electronic engineering and software engineering. However, their widespread adoption continues to elude the Life Sciences. Despite early initiatives, such as the creation of the standard DNA sequences ‘BioBricks’ at the turn of the millennium,[1] many biologists resist settling upon shared languages, tools, units and methods.

Synthetic biology, in particular, relies on the construction and manipulation of biological systems and would do well to take a page from the history books of technology. Unlike car manufacturers, though, biological engineers aren’t all interested in producing the maximum yield to turn a maximum profit. Instead, using biotechnology to solve health, industry or environmental problems demands creative research which may not have an immediate commercial application.

Scientists working on such fundamental research are often concerned that adopting standard tools will limit their flexibility. In reality, robust standards should enhance the scientist’s toolkit, with the added benefits of interoperability and replicability — whether for basic research purposes or industrial-scale applications. In addition, laboratory science should strive to optimise the available resources; think minimum waste rather than maximum profit. Standards certainly have a role to play in this streamlining process.

Knowledge gaps

Convincing researchers that proper standards won’t curtail their freedom is a first step, but there are also practical issues slowing the advance of standardisation[2]: first, open scientific questions in Biology prevent using a formal, universal language to describe engineered biosystems unambiguously, and second, it’s not always easy to identify the specific tasks or tools that can be standardised.

For example, genetic circuits are often thought of as comparable to electronic ones, however their behaviour is more analogue than digital, and doesn’t always mirror the workings of logic gates or switches. Further research will determine whether existing models capture the true behaviour of these biosystems or whether new conventions are necessary.

As this fundamental research advances, we may need to revisit existing tools, or discard those that are not adaptable. The once-ubiquitous floppy disks became obsolete with the advent of USB flash drives. So pioneering standards of the biotech field, like the BioBricks, have become less valuable in the wake of scientific advances that enable new methods for cloning and DNA synthesis.

While more recent standards like the Synthetic Biology Open Language are gaining usefulness and popularity, they can still encounter reluctance from independent-minded researchers. As physicist Murray Gell-Mann remarked, “a scientist would rather use someone else’s toothbrush than another scientist’s nomenclature”.[3]

Social hurdles

This brings us to what are perhaps the two most insidious barriers to standardisation: laziness and personal interests. Replacing a pet tool, name or protocol with an unfamiliar standard can be off-putting. Many scientists only start using SEVA plasmids, for instance, when their current vector tools are no longer fit for the job. It barely takes any effort to make the switch — but why bother to go looking for a standard, if the usual procedures work just fine for one’s immediate research goals?

The answer, of course, is to think long-term. And to put aside individual agendas that hinder the global scientific endeavour. Standards may bear some initial cost in exchange for the eventual benefits — in that case, adopting them is a one-step-back, three-steps-forward scenario. Unfortunately, the insecure academic job market and a culture of careerism in science often impose urgency and near-sightedness, incompatible with making delayed-payoff compromises.

In short, biotechnology is not like the other engineering disciplines. In order to create effective artificial biosystems, there is still much to discover about the ones available in nature. Synthetic biologists don’t universally share concerns for replicability and interoperability. But attitudes are slowly changing.

As international collaborations and industrial applications of biotechnology mature, so will the demand for universal tools and metrics. This, coupled to a top-down push for standards by research institutions, funding bodies and journal publishers may be enough to pull biologists out of the Tower of Babel — perhaps not into Fordism, but at least into the age of technological modernity.



[1] Knight, T. (2003). Idempotent vector design for standard assembly of Biobricks.

[2] Beal, J., Goñi‐Moreno, A., Myers, C., Hecht, A., de Vicente, M. D. C., Parco, M., … & Freemont, P. (2020). The long journey towards standards for engineering biosystems: Are the Molecular Biology and the Biotech communities ready to standardise?. EMBO reports21(5), e50521.

[3] Gell-Mann, M. (2002). What is complexity? In Complexity and industrial clusters (pp. 13-24). Physica-Verlag HD.