Drew Endy on Engineering Biology

Martyn Amos draws our attention to a revealing interview from MIT’s Drew Endy about the future of synthetic biology. While Craig Venter up to now monopolised the headlines about synthetic biology, Endy has an original and thought-provoking take on the subject.

Endy is quite clear about his goals: “The underlying goal of synthetic biology is to make biology easy to engineer.” In pursuing this, he looks to the history of engineering, recognising the importance of things like interchangeable parts and standard screw gauges, and seeks a similar library of modular components for biological systems. Of course, this approach must take for granted that when components are put together they behave in predictable ways: “Engineers hate complexity. I hate emergent properties. I like simplicity. I don’t want the plane I take tomorrow to have some emergent property while it’s flying.” Quite right, of course, but since many suspect that life itself is an emergent property one could wonder how much of biology will be left after you’ve taken the emergence out.

Many people will have misgivings about the synthetic biology enterprise, but Endy is an eloquent proponent of the benefits of applying hacker culture to biology: “Programming DNA is more cool, it’s more appealing, it’s more powerful than silicon. You have an actual living, reproducing machine; it’s nanotechnology that works. It’s not some Drexlarian (Eric Drexler) fantasy. And we get to program it. And it’s actually a pretty cheap technology. You don’t need a FAB Lab like you need for silicon wafers. You grow some stuff up in sugar water with a little bit of nutrients. My read on the world is that there is tremendous pressure that’s just started to be revealed around what heretofore has been extraordinarily limited access to biotechnology.”

His answer to societal worries about the technology, then, is an confidence in the power of open source ideals, common ownership rather than corporate monopoly for the intellectual property, and an assurance that an open technology will automatically be applied to solve pressing societal problems.

There are legitimate questions about this vision of synthetic biology, both as to whether it is possible and whether it is wise. But to get some impression of the strength of the driving forces pushing this way, take a look at this recent summary of trends in DNA synthesis and sequencing. “Productivity of DNA synthesis technologies has increased approximately 7,000-fold over the past 15 years, doubling every 14 months. Costs of gene synthesis per bases pair have fallen 50-fold, halving every 32 months.” Whether this leads to synthetic biology in the form anticipated by Drew Endy, the breakthrough into the mainstream of DNA nanotechnology, or something quite unexpected, it’s difficult to imagine this rapid technological development not having far-reaching consequences.

4 thoughts on “Drew Endy on Engineering Biology”

  1. I had a quite similar reaction to Endy’s essay, but I don’t think he argues that “an open technology will automatically be applied to solve pressing societal problems” but more that an open approach is the only one that will allow us to realize the full potential of biotechnology, whatever it may be. His analogy with the development of the personal computer makes that point most clearly since I don’t think anyone would argue that because PCs are widely available that they are automatically applied to pressing problems. On the other hand, a significant part of the power of computers to change society has been developed because they are relatively open. As Endy said, imagine how different computer development would have been if someone owned exclusive rights to “if/then.”

  2. I’d think the modular products spoken of are proteins and whatever the term for synthetic proteins is. I’d expect modular products but only when discoveries for a synthetic product stop occuring. When the physical limits are reached that product will not be altered.
    Say Venter invents a “chloroplast-mitoventer” that can turn air at 1% CO2 into methane. Then Dow Chemical comes along and inserts a few genes that make the process work at a 0.75% CO2 atmosphere at exactly the same bioreactor $cost$. Whoever has decided to standardize at Venter’s product manufacture process will lose market share. I’d think gene expressions are too unknown to make the products modular at this point. Or is the modularity to be the steps in the manufacturing recipe?

    M.Anissimov, the biggest risk is this technology is used to unleash a pandemic. Defenses include: handwashing, standard civil defense stuff, stockpiling respirators and soap, training (war games) aviation staff and a nursing “surge capacity”, university and industry mental health screening where the subject matter deals with upper lung tissue sugars, ensuring lung sugar databases aren’t stored on laptops or otherwise subject to hacking, lobbying for hospitals to purchase medonyx’s “gelFAST” or Sprixx’s portable personal hand sanitizer, continuing materials sciences innovations of virus-killing surfaces, donating copper doorknobs to third world hospitals, funding biosensors of all types (Department of Homeland Security should redirect 2/3’s of its entire budget to building better cheaper biosensor networks), funding WHO better and donating money to 3rd world hospitals for an internet connection so they can participate in issuing real-time status reports for pandemic AI “news-bots” to digest, NSA monitoring of individuals with a google interest in lung sugars and virii surfaces, R+D of cheaper positive air pressure equipment of all types from tents to breathing apparatus.

    A minor risk is synthetic biology will unleash time-release “assination capsules” capable of taking out multiple targets simultaneously as opposed to the single target facilitated by existing ricin. I’d be more worried about the CIA, KGB and Mossad using these technologies than Al-Qaida. For example, the doomday cults that poisoned buffet eaters in 1980’s Oregon and subway commuters in 1990’s Japan would have unleashed casualties in the hundreds with synthetic biology.
    Still, without THC legalized and taxed under Canada’s present government I’m going to need a synthetic liver I expect synthetic biology will provide.

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