Biohacking—synthetic biology for the technologically marginalized

December 26, 2008

Last June I wrote a short piece on biohacking, prompted by a UK report on the social and ethical challenges of synthetic biology.  At the time, I though the aspirations of the nascent biopunk community naively optimistic, but potentially worrying.  Six months on, biohacking is hitting the mainstream press—and gaining momentum.

Image courtesy of the Synthetic Biology Project

Maybe it was just a slow news day.  Maybe the subject had substance.  Either way, a story posted yesterday by the Associated Press on home-style genetic engineering has attracted quite a bit of attention over the new services.

The story revolves around Meredith L. Patterson—a 31-year-old computer programmer who is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that glow green to signal the presence of melamine—that most recent of food-contaminants.  According to the article, Patterson

“learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.”

And if you think that sounds far out, try the group DIYBio for size. Co-founded by Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, the Cambridge Massachusetts group is setting up a community lab where people can use chemicals and lab equipment according to AP—including a used low temperature freezer, scored for free off Craigslist! Read the rest of this entry »

Saints or synners?

December 17, 2008

Policy, public perceptions, and the opportunities and challenges of synthetic biology

Synthetic biology—a supreme expression of scientific hubris, or the solution to all our problems?

Like everything in life, I suspect that the answer to the question is far from black and white.  Yet what is clear is that this emerging science and technology that merges evolutionary biology with systematic engineering raises many exciting new possibilities, together with a heap of complex social, ethical and even religious questions.

Striking the right balance between these opportunities and challenges will require people working together in new and innovative ways—especially those involved in researching, developing, using and overseeing synbio.  If the emerging technology is to reach its potential, some tough decisions are going to have to be made at some point on what is developed, how it is used, and how it is regulated.  And the more these decisions are based on sound science and informed thinking, the better.

This is the challenge a new initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has set its sights on.  The just-launched Project on Synthetic Biology aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of the field, working in collaboration with researchers, governments, industries, non-government organizations and others.  Supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will draw on experience gained in addressing science and technology policy issues by the Project on Emerging Technologies—so you can expect to see some familiar faces here ☺

Rather than write a tedious infomercial for the new project, I would suggest instead that you check out the snazzy new website at  Having said that, there are three things worth highlighting: Read the rest of this entry »

Decoupling “nanotechnology”

May 17, 2008

“Nanotechnology” as an overarching concept is great for sweeping statements and sound bites, but falls short when it comes to real-world decision-making.  As nanoscale technologies are increasingly used in everything from antimicrobial socks to anti-cancer drugs, perhaps its time to rethink how we talk about the myriad diverse technologies that fall, slip or are forcibly squeezed under this all-encompassing banner. Read the rest of this entry »

Synthetic biology and nanotechnology

January 26, 2008

The popular computer game “SimLife” allows users to create and manipulate virtual people.  But what are the chances of us one day being able to do the same with real organisms: building new life-forms out of basic chemicals, so “SimLife” becomes “SynLife”?

This week’s announcement by J. Craig Venter’s team (and the associated paper in Science) that they have successfully synthesized the complete genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium is an important step towards achieving what is becoming known as “synthetic biology”.  By constructing complete DNA sequences from scratch, the door is being opened to transforming common laboratory chemicals into new living organisms; that are engineered with specific purposes in mind.  And perhaps not surprisingly, this manipulation of DNA at the nanoscale is increasingly being seen as part of the “nanotechnology revolution”.

But is synthetic biology really nanotechnology? Read the rest of this entry »

Are we on a nanotechnology joyride?

November 25, 2007

Are we so caught up in the thrill of nanotechnology, that we are blind to future pitfalls?  Are we having the new technology ride of our lives—with someone else’s future?  Are we living for the nanotech moment, and leaving the consequences to others to deal with?  In short, are we on a nanotechnology joyride? Read the rest of this entry »

Overseeing nanotechnology development

November 18, 2007

If you’ve ever wondered how to deal with the complexities of regulating a twenty first century technology like nanotechnology, wonder no more.  Last week, President Bush’s top advisors on science and the environment published a set of principles for nanotechnology environment, health and safety oversight. 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 »