Synthetic biology: Lessons from synthetic chemistry

November 13, 2008

Looking back to chart a course to the future

This coming lunchtime*, former New York Times columnist Denise Caruso will discuss the promise and pit-falls of synthetic biology with Center for American Progress senior fellow and former Washington Post science reporter Rick Weiss.  Given the track record of both participants, I’m anticipating a stimulating and spirited discussion, which will draw on Caruso’s just-published article on an overview and recommendations for anticipating and addressing emerging risks from synthetic biology.

But rather than focus on Denise’s piece [which as you would expect from a talented writer, speaks quite eloquently enough for itself], I thought I would provide a slice of back-story to synthetic biology.  And to do this, I want to use a rather good paper published last year by Brian Yeh and Wendell Lim (of the University of California San Francisco)… Read the rest of this entry »

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Nanotechnology and the God of Small Things

January 12, 2008

With apologies to Arundhati Roi for “borrowing” the title of her moving book, what—if anything—has nanotechnology got to do with religion?

Barnaby Feder of the New York Times takes on this issue in his latest posting to the Bits blog:

“There may not be a lot of agreement among the world’s religions on exactly what constitutes humans “playing God,” but you never hear a preacher or rabbi suggesting such behavior is wise or laudable. So you would think they might have a lot to say about nanotechnology. After all, nanotech involves rearranging not just DNA and the other building blocks of life — already a source of controversy in biotechnology — but the very atoms and molecules that make up all matter. If that is not messing around in God’s closet, what is?”

The big issue it seems is transhumanism—the use of existing and emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, to extend and change what it means to be human.  Will nanotechnology give us the ability to do what only God should?  Can we somehow thwart God’s plans, and take control of our own destiny?  Or is there nano-knowledge that should be forbidden? Read the rest of this entry »


Nanotechnology in context – Size matter

November 1, 2007

In July 2007, a specially convened task force of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that size does in fact matter (FDA 2007).  The focus of the task force was not on the importance of “largeness”, but rather on the technology of the unimaginably small—nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the technology of manipulating matter at near-atomic levels; typically, but not exclusively, within the size range of 1 – 100 nanometers.  Working at this scale, it becomes possible to combine materials in ways and forms unimaginable more than a few decades ago.  Imagine the contrast between eighteenth century surgery and modern microsurgery, and you begin to get an idea of what this emerging technology offers.

According to the FDA task force, “properties of a material relevant to the safety and (as applicable) effectiveness of FDA-regulated products might change repeatedly as size enters into or varies within the nanoscale range”. But as Professor James Moor and Professor John Wecker point out in the Spring 2007 edition of Medical Ethics [PDF, 805 KB], nanotechnology not only raises safety and regulatory issues, but ethical questions as well (Moor and Wecker 2007). Read the rest of this entry »