Synthetic biology – the debate heats up

Will it be possible to radically remodel living organisms so that they make products that we want? This is the ambition of one variant of synthetic biology; the idea is to take a simple bacteria, remove all unnecessary functions, and then patch the genetic code for the functions we want. It’s clear that this project is likely to lead to serious ethical issues, and the debate about these issues is beginning in earnest today. At a conference being held in Berkeley today, synthetic biology 2.0, the synthetic biology research community is having discussions on biosecurity & risk, public understanding & perception, ownership, sharing & innovation, and community organization, with the aim of developing a framework for the self-regulation of the field. Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace, Genewatch, Friends of the Earth and ETC, has issued a press release calling on the scientists to abandon this attempt at self-regulation.

Some of the issues to be discussed by the scientists can be seen on this wiki. One very prominent issue is the possibility that malevolent groups could create pathogenic organisms using synthetic DNA, and there is a lot of emphasis on what safeguards can be put in place by the companies that supply synthetic DNA with a specified sequence. This is a very important problem – the idea that it is now possible to create from scratch pathogens like the virus behind the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic frightens many people, me included. But it’s not going to be the only issue to arise, and I think it is very legitimate to wonder whether community self-regulation is sufficient to police such a potentially powerful technology. The fact that much of the work is going on in commercial organisations is a cause for concern. One of the main players in this game is Synthetic Genomics, inc, which was set up by Craig Venter, who already has some form in the matter of not being bound by the consensus of the scientific community.

In terms of the rhetoric surrounding the field, I’d also suggest that the tone adopted in articles like this one, in this weeks New Scientist, Redesigning life: Meet the biohackers (preview, subscription required for full article), is unhelpful and unwise, to say the least.

19 thoughts on “Synthetic biology – the debate heats up”

  1. Richard,

    I’m curious about your last paragraph; what exactly is it about the tone of the article that you don’t like?

  2. It’s the use of the “hacking” theme that I think is problematic. Computer hackers have a heroic image in the two Cambridges and a few other places, but in the rest of the world people are going to think of computer viruses and malware and think of that twisted ingenuity being applied to bacteria and viruses. This is not a smart image to attach to one’s field.

  3. Might be vocabulary more than tone: the theme is of tinkerers and inventors, which at least in the US is good; the self-used word for such in computers is hacker, which despite their PR efforts has a less benign public meaning. To say that Edison hacked up a good light bulb would be odd but intelligible to an MIT computer hacker, and just odd outside the culture.

  4. This debate is an interesting one, considering the black eyes the field of Biotechnology has recieved since the 80s. Some people are already calling for Moratoriums and such(mostly Leftwing Green Freaks and Rightwing Bible Thumpers), and frankely I think that is the worst course to take. Infact, overregulation could hamper efforts to combat released synthetic virii, if such a accident/attack should occur. Information flow needs to be as unrestricted as possible to make combating these threats as easy as possible. The more minds working on a problem in parellel to each other, world-wide, the faster a problem can be dealt with. The field should progress towards a more Open methodology. Open as in Open Source. Locking the information behind closed doors will just help the Black Market in the long run, and will give them an advantage in many respects.

  5. The solution to this problem in the long-term is cheap nano-sensors, so the field can’t be shut down or the “sensor engineers” won’t know what to prototype.

  6. Will it be possible to radically remodel living organisms so that they make products that we want?

    Yeah, I definitely think so. Unlike drexlerian nanotech, this one is grounded in sound principles of of how atoms and molecules operate in complex systems, at room temperature and aqueous environments.

    I think what they are calling synthetic biology is only the first step. I think once the fundamental principles driving the reaction mechanisms behind biology are understood, then improvements can be made. Even though any radical nanotechnology will be based on these principles, I see no reason why they must use stuff like DNA, ribosomes, and the like.

    I think self-regulation is the only way to go. I also think an “open-source” approach, much like that behind Linux in the IT world is also the way to go.

  7. The phrase “societal implications” is often a code word for people who want to impose their concept of right and wrong onto others who may have a different view of things.

    The best way to assure open access to all of these technologies is to promote the bionanotech equivalent of the open source software movement. If ETC wants to do something real, they should promote this.

  8. The idea of keeping everything open source is very attractive, but one has to face the reality that it’s not likely to happen. Venter’s entire career is built on the premise of making money from the proprietary control of genetic information. This, of course, was the premise behind the private sector bid to sequence the human genome by Venter’s previous company, Celera. The human genome didn’t end up the proprietary property of Celera simply because huge amounts of resource were thrown at the rival, public sector project, and this, in turn, ultimately happened because the British charity (the Wellcome Trust) had enough money and enough conviction in the rightness of the principle of open access to underwrite, at a critical moment when the US government went wobbly, the whole cost of the HGP. There’s no possibility of any similar commitment being made now in this much more diverse arena.

  9. “The idea of keeping everything open source is very attractive, but one has to face the reality that it’s not likely to happen.”

    1st point, the F.L.O.S.S. movement only began to pick up steam when a Quick and Sharp crash happened at a time where computer programming personel were in over-abundant, equipment was being auctioned off at below 10% of their previous market value, and Venture Capitol was non-existant. The results? Mozilla, OpenOffice, Bittorrent, etc. The First and Last piece of software just so happen to be the biggest non-videogame related software to hit the PC in over a decade, and OpenOffice is getting to the point where it can do pretty much everything the competition can do as well. Firefox actually made MS improve explorer for the first time in a decade. 😛 A similar trend could happen in this space as well.

    2nd, you are right when it won’t be universal…at first. In order for Biotechnology to universally become a OS technology we need some U.N., WHO, WTO, WIPO(HAH! I’d like to live to see that day when they support the public interests), and Governmental & Regional Action. How such a regime would come to pass, you’re guess is as good as mine, but I think it may come after a severe Crash or even the Hypothetical Collapse, or after a severe Bioterrorist incident, or _______________ (

  10. “The idea of keeping everything open source is very attractive, but one has to face the reality that it’s not likely to happen.”

    It helps that many of the people in the synthetic biology community like the Open Source idea and are actively supporting and participating in the dissemination of information related to their efforts. Y’know … walk the walk…and eventually others will follow. The strange part (not really that strange) is that the approach generally works…look at the number of labs on Look at It’s information in the for all. In addition, molecular biology has a fine tradition of sharing plasmids and other DNA constructs between fellow scientists. The tradition started way before OSS too.

    Of course, people still want to make money, but the first major business model is to sell DNA synthesis to order (Codon devices, Heron, DNA 2.0, GeneArt, etc) and not necessarily the information related to a product (ie. the DNA sequence itself). The next business model might be to design your device for you and then manufacture it to spec. Of course, that requires the reliable prediction of the dynamics of these synthetic biological systems which isn’t quite there yet.

    SB2.0 was a great conference, btw. It’s rare to have so many interesting and amazing talks one right after another … but they did it again! Bravo!

  11. Howard, you raise a very interesting point. Academic science really is what the anthropologists call a gift economy, in the sense in which the more (ideas) you give away you the more you get back and the more respect and career success you earn. Because of this the idea of open source comes very naturally to scientists. The problem comes when this attractive ideology collides with the Bayh-Dole act, university Tech-Transfer offices and the VC industry.

  12. What the BioOSS community needs is a benefactor. Like how IBM and Google support Linux and Firefox. How many BlockBuster patents does Phizer have left? HOw long till they come off IP protection? We need a young upstart or a struggling incumbant to take a risk. I believe that may happen soon. Cutting costs in drug development would be very attractive to some companies.

  13. I’m glad to see such optimism from the experts, and I certainly hope you’re right about open source and beneficial sponsorship supporting the positive development and use of synthetic biology. But as you also point out, there are enough examples of greed and avarice dominating technology to lead to a more pessimistic forecast. Regarding hacking, for example, many computer hackers have already moved on to RFID hacking, and their urge to mess with the latest technologies will undoubtedly engage them in synthetic biology, with much higher stakes. The academy as a gift economy model is, I think, passing away before our eyes (I speak as an insider, an associate professor). Nanotech and biotech have brought the academy into the service of business like nothing before. Still, the fact that this discussion is taking place here and at SB2.0 gives hope.

  14. MT, while I think many people – including quite a few in the industry itself – probably agree that the current model for innovation in the pharmaceutical industry is flawed or even broken, it’s not at all clear to me that makes open source models for innovation more likely. Rather the opposite, in fact. As you observe, in IT it’s big companies that have often made space for open source (always, though, for very hard-headed competitive reasons, I suspect). But in pharma, the big companies are increasingly looking to start-ups for their innovation, and for those small companies proprietary control of IP is the only asset they have. The debate about open access to scientific results is an interesting one that has some parallels to the open source debate, but it is distinct. The issue isn’t whether one can freely read about scientific results, it’s whether you can use those results as the basis for a business. Most of the patented processes that come out of universities are published in the open literature, but that doesn’t affect their proprietary status.

    George, as you can tell I’m not as optimistic as others about open source. I don’t even necessarily think it’s a question of motivations of greed and avarice, it’s simply a question of individuals and organisations responding rationally to the economic system we live in. As regards the death of the gift economy in academia, perhaps you are right, but this is a development I would regret, not just for idealistic reasons, but because increasingly I’m concluding that this gift economy actually provides a more efficient basis for innovation and wealth creation than one in which academics are driven to protect every piece of IP they produce.

  15. RFID hacking can be avoided by using a more expensive and harder to counterfeit nano-magnetic strip inventory technology. Some technologies are just hard or impossible (quantum encryption) to hack.

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