Synthetic biology, and staving off apocalypse with education

November 27, 2009 at 10:40 am Leave a comment

Day 225

Originally uploaded by a Dan of action

by Alec Patton

Yesterday, I read a New Yorker article by Michael Specter on ‘synthetic biology’ (read it here-yes, it’s in the same issue as the Richard Holbrooke article).

Synthetic Biologists are developing what the article describes as genetic legos – standardised pieces of genetic material that can be combined in order to make new life forms from scratch. One potential use for this technology is developing cells which work as factories to produce biofuels and medicines that are time-consuming and expensive to extract from crops. Another potential use is designing lethal, hyper-infectious diseases for which none of us have any defense. And another use is designing our own children, thereby cutting reproduction out of human biology (which is a big deal, since, as Darwin observed, reproduction has, until now, been the point of the whole ballgame, biologically-speaking).

This scares the hell out of me, and to some extent I want no part of it – but no technology ever failed to develop just because it seemed too dangerous or morally dubious – synthetic biology looks to continue developing, as long as climate change and energy crises don’t set us all back too quickly (I hardly need to mention that CO2-eating microorganisms are one of the big projects that synthetic biologists are working on right now).

So, this stuff is scary, it’s dangerous, it has tremendous potential for good, and, unlike, say, enriching uranium, it’s cheap to get involved with (you can get a used DNA-synthesiser on ebay for under $1000) and there’s copious advice available online for the home DNA-synthesiser. A former colleague of mine once performed a series of experiments on a strand of DNA that she received through the post, using equipment from major research facilities that agreed to give her access. She was a first-year undergradaute at the time (the occasion was the IGEM competition, where undergraduates from throughout the world synthesise DNA and bring their creations to be judged at that year’s host city. One of the more notable IGEM entries was a strand of e-coli bacteria that smelled like wintergreen while it grew, and banana once it matured).

As Specter writes, “censoring the pursuit of knowledge has never really worked, in part because there are no parameters for society to decide who should have information and who should not.” He goes on to make an eminently sensible suggestion:

The opposite approach might give us better results: accelerate the development of technology and open it to more people and educate them to its purpose…
For synthetic biology to accomplish any of its goals, we will also need an education system that encourages skepticism and the study of science.

As Larry Rosenstock says, for too many students, learning biology means memorising a series of vocabulary words, rather than learning to do what biologists do. I also think education can encourage people to treat information with considered skepticism, even if it comes from outside their specialist field. Most of us won’t be experts in biology – and, even if I’d excelled in biology in high school, and participated in cutting-edge research, I’d know nothing about synthetic biology, because it just didn’t exist. So people need to learn how to access and evaluate information ACROSS science, politics, art, music, engineering, theology, law, literature, etc., and they need to be able to make educated guesses about whose analysis to trust. I think the very term ‘well-informed’ is misleading. ‘Information-savvy’ gets closer to the trait we should be helping people to develop, but it sounds rather obnoxious. Further suggestions are welcome.


Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services, Innovation Policy, Innovation Worldwide, Research.

An interesting quote from Richard Holbrooke Getting Engaged

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