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.
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 »
December 24, 2008
Revisiting Sheila Jasanoff’s Technologies of Humility
In 2003, Harvard University’s Sheila Jasanoff wrote about what she termed “Technologies of Humility.” Recognizing the growing disconnect between technological progress and its effective governance, Jasanoff explored new approaches to decision-making that “seek to integrate the ‘can-do’ orientation of science and engineering with the ‘should-do’ questions of ethical and political analysis.” Five years on, her (still radical) ideas resonate deeply with the science and technology ambitions of the incoming Obama administration.
Sitting down this morning, I had intended to write about three papers recently published on-line in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The papers (by Kahan et al., Pidgeon et al. and Sheufele et al.)—which were widely reported on a few weeks back—consider factors influencing “public” responses to nanotechnology, and challenge long-held beliefs that knowledge leads to acceptance.
However, I became distracted! Searching for an original frame for these studies, I returned to Jasanoff’s 2003 paper “Technologies of Humility: Citizen participation in governing Science,” published in the journal Minerva (Minerva 41:223-244). Reading it, I was struck afresh by how germane Jasanoff’s ideas are, how completely they seemed to have been ignored in US policy making, and how important they are to the science and technology agenda of the incoming Obama administration.
Rather than read a re-hash from me of what is an eloquently written and very accessible paper, I would strongly recommend you pour yourself a glass of good wine (a cup of coffee or fine tea will do just as well), carve out some quality time, and read the original—which is downloadable from here [PDF, 120 KB]. It is after all the holiday season, and what better than a good read to fill the long hours before the grind of work begins once again!
But just in case you are in a hurry and care to put up with my crude and flawed overview, here you are: Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
June 13, 2008
Read Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” or Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, and you get a glimpse into how the hacker culture that emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century revolutionized the digital world. Will a confluence of emerging technologies—including information tech, biotech, and nanotech—lead to a similar revolution in the biological world? Read the rest of this entry »
March 6, 2008
Can current approaches to doing science sustain us over the next one hundred years? An increasing reliance on technological fixes to global challenges — including nanotechnology — demands a radical rethink of how we use science in the service of society.
Over the next century we will perhaps be facing the greatest challenge in the history of humanity: sustaining six billion plus people on a planet where natural resources are running scarce and our every action results in a palpable environmental reaction. Progress towards sustainability will only come through integrating relevant science with socially-responsible decision making. Yet the science policy dogmas of the 20th century may be stretched to breaking point in the face of 21st century challenges. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »