With the release of the Google Book Ngram tool, I've started looking at some of the pre-history and early history of molecular biology - the era before the 1944 Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment began to suggest that DNA was the carrier of hereditary information and the years immediately succeeding it, from Schrödinger's treatise "What is Life?", through Hershey-Chase, to Nirenberg, picking up Crick's central dogma (PDF) along the way. One of the findings I take delight in is that synthetic biology is not a new phrase, though our conception of it has certainly changed over time.

The earliest example I can find of term synthetic biology comes from 1864.

" ...Although obliged to coin a few new terms, we deem natural distinctions and definitions of more importance than mere names; for many questions of positive science must be settled before any general system of nomenclature can finally be admitted.

The same "artist" misrepresents our definition of systematic biology in contrast with unsystematic biology. "Why are we to assume a less amount of system or method to reside in the analytical than in the synthetical form of biological study, or in what way a perfect synthesis of our knowledge upon the facts of life is to be built up, in the absence of a concomitant and even antecedent analysis, we want something more than arbitrary assertion to make intelligible to us." The reviewer, in haste, has not observed that we mention seven kinds of anatomy and physiology as necessary branches of antecedent analysis, and give our own concomitant analysis of the human body as a necessary basis for synthetic biology...
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Hugh Doherty, Organic Philosophy; or, Man's True Place in Nature, Vol. I - Epicosmology (1864)

This serves as excellent evidence that if you search deep enough in the literature you can find almost anything, and that peer review was not always appreciated even a century and a half ago. I must confess to a particular fondness for a more modern discussion of synthetic biology, which holds a certain poignancy for our current research endeavors a hundred years later.

" In a recent issue of Science appears a review of "Théorie physico-chimique de la vie et générations spontanées," by Stéphen Leduc, Professor à l'école de medecine de Nantes. This book takes up the world-old problem of the ultimate nature of living matter in an interesting way, and brings up to date the work that has been done toward establishing a "synthetic" biology. The author starts with the proposition that we know as yet nothing of life itself, having learned only a few facts regarding the phenomena accompanying its manifestation. These phenomena, he points out, have all analogies in inorganic matter, and it is to painstaking study of these analogies that we must look for present progress toward the development of synthetic biology.
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M.R. Scharff, MIT Society of Arts Science Conspectus, Vol. 1, pg 113 (1910)

I also see some parallels between the growing efforts towards standardization in synthetic biology and Delbrück's "Phage Treaty" encouraging the now-famous phage group to standardize on a small number of bacteriophages in their experiments. Hopefully our newer efforts to focus on standardized biological systems will be similarly fruitful.