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.