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 www.synbioproject.org.  Having said that, there are three things worth highlighting: Read the rest of this entry »


Emerging science and technology at 700 characters per day – how was it for you?

December 13, 2008

The pains and pleasures of tweeting science and technology innovation, 140 characters at a time.

Five days, 539 words and 3,447 characters later, the Twitter experiment is over. Did I succeed in communicating on emerging science and technology in 700 characters a day?  I’m not sure.  The whole exercise was harder than I expected.  Trying to come up with something interesting and relevant five times a day was a challenge.  Thursday was a particularly tough day—and the entries show it!

But at the end of the exercise, I must admit it was fun.  And even though tweeting will never supplant full-on blogging for communicating stuff in depth, it clearly has a place.

I’m not sure I would do a five-day stint like this again, but the medium is clearly open to innovative use.  And with some thought, could be used to convey more complex information than trivial thoughts and web links.  Personally, I think my writing-style took a dive with the constraints imposed by the character-limit and serial-posts.  But I was surprised at how much could be crammed into 140 characters, with some thought.  And while the experiment had many flaws, I think there is scope to use Twitter and similar formats in ways that lead to engagement on issues with some depth. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


Synthetic Biology 4.0—changing the way science is done

October 10, 2008

Sitting here absorbing the atmosphere at the Synthetic Biology 4.0 meeting in Hong Kong, I have the strangest feeling of being transported into a Kim Stanley Robinson novel.  It’s not the cutting edge science being presented that is responsible, exciting and innovative as this is.  Neither is it the spectacular and futuristic setting, high above Clear Water Bay at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  Rather, it’s the sense of a community that has come together to redefine how science and technology are developed and used within society; coupled with the possibility that they might just succeed! Read the rest of this entry »


Synthetic biology and the public: Time for a heart to heart?

September 30, 2008

So, you have a cool new science that could make a major impact on global challenges like energy, disease and pollution and you want to make sure it reaches its full potential.  What do you do?  At some point, having a heart to heart with “the public” might be a good idea.  Especially if your “cool new science” involves playing around with the very building blocks of life! Read the rest of this entry »