It’s fairly clear that nanotechnology is no longer the new new thing. A recent story in Business Week – Nanotech Disappoints in Europe – is not atypical. It takes its lead from the recent difficulties of the UK nanotech company Oxonica, which it describes as emblematic of the nanotechnology sector as a whole: “a story of early promise, huge hype, and dashed hopes.” Meanwhile, in the slightly neophilic world of the think-tanks, one detects the onset of a certain boredom with the subject. For example, Jack Stilgoe writes on the Demos blog “We have had huge fun running around in the nanoworld for the last three years. But there is a sense that, as the term ‘nanotechnology’ becomes less and less useful for describing the diversity of science that is being done, interesting challenges lie elsewhere… But where?”
Where indeed? A strong candidate for the next new new thing is surely synthetic biology. (This will not, of course, be new to regular Soft Machines readers, who will have read about it here two years ago). An article in the New York Times at the weekend gives a good summary of some of the claims. The trigger for the recent prominence of synthetic biology in the news is probably the recent announcement from the Craig Venter Institute of the first bacterial genome transplant. This refers to an advance paper in Science (abstract, subscription required for full article) by John Glass and coworkers. There are some interesting observations on this in a commentary (subscription required) in Science. It’s clear that much remains to be clarified about this experiment: “But the advance remains somewhat mysterious. Glass says he doesn’t fully understand why the genome transplant succeeded, and it’s not clear how applicable their technique will be to other microbes. “ The commentary from other scientists is interesting: “Microbial geneticist Antoine Danchin of the Pasteur Institute in Paris calls the experiment “an exceptional technical feat.” Yet, he laments, “many controls are missing.” And that has prevented Glass’s team, as well as independent scientists, from truly understanding how the introduced DNA takes over the host cell.”
The technical challenges of this new field haven’t prevented activists from drawing attention to its potential downsides. Those veterans of anti-nanotechnology campaigning, the ETC group, have issued a report on synthetic biology, Extreme Genetic Engineering, noting that “Today, scientists aren’t just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they’re building life from scratch – and they’re doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight”. Meanwhile, the Royal Society has issued a call for views on the subject.
Looking again at the NY Times article, one can perhaps detect some interesting parallels with the way the earlier nanotechnology debate unfolded. We see, for example, some fairly unrealistic expectations being raised: ““Grow a house” is on the to-do list of the M.I.T. Synthetic Biology Working Group, presumably meaning that an acorn might be reprogrammed to generate walls, oak floors and a roof instead of the usual trunk and branches. “Take over Mars. And then Venus. And then Earth” —the last items on this modest agenda.” And just as the radical predictions of nanotechnology were underpinned by what were in my view inappropriate analogies with mechanical engineering, much of the talk in synthetic biology is underpinned by explicit, but as yet unproven, parallels between cell biology and computer science: “Most people in synthetic biology are engineers who have invaded genetics. They have brought with them a vocabulary derived from circuit design and software development that they seek to impose on the softer substance of biology. They talk of modules — meaning networks of genes assembled to perform some standard function — and of “booting up” a cell with new DNA-based instructions, much the way someone gets a computer going.”
It will be interesting how the field of synthetic biology develops, to see whether it does a better of job of steering between overpromised benefits and overdramatised fears than nanotechnology arguably did. Meanwhile, nanotechnology won’t be going away. Even the sceptical Business Week article concluded that better times lay ahead as the focus in commercialising nanotechnology moved from simple applications of nanoparticles to more sophisticated applications of nanoscale devices: “Potentially even more important is the upcoming shift from nanotech materials to applications—especially in health care and pharmaceuticals. These are fields where Europe is historically strong and already has sophisticated business networks. “