- the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems.
- the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.
Essentially, researchers are trying to work out the "parts catalogue" for living organisms, and then seeing how these components can be put together in new ways to yield entirely new behaviours, as well as investigating how the existing components may be re-engineered to make them more efficient, react to different inputs, etc. According to the editorial, "This technology allows biological components, circuits and potentially replicating organisms to be developed from scratch, possibly based on different genetic codes from those found in the wild."
A lovely example of synthetic biology in action is the bacterial "camera", which uses engineered E. coli bugs (there's an open access Science Daily press release). Some of the founders of this new field describe recent progress, discuss its foundations, and consider the ethical and safety issues that such research must address.
In an unusual step for the journal, they've also commissioned a cartoon guide to synthetic biology (which is open access).
I'm currently writing a journal article on "Bacterial Self-Organisation and Computation", which will describe a lot of this work - I'll post a link to it when it's finished.