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June 16, 2006 4:15 AM   Subscribe

The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology
posted by Gyan (14 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
A dedicated community is located at Synthetic Biology.
posted by Gyan at 4:27 AM on June 16, 2006


Interesting, as long as it doesn't result in the total destruction of stuffs.
posted by Atreides at 4:38 AM on June 16, 2006


Maas-Neotek wants its patents back.

Or:

We wont be able to identify our great-grandchildren with a map and a DNA test.

Or:

The street finds it's own uses for things. The drug, sex and self-modification trades are about to detonate.

Or:

LF. Aleph! I heard that...
posted by loquacious at 5:21 AM on June 16, 2006


As always with poorly understood technology: The promise is very real but quite oversold, and the perils are a big load of bullsh*t.

The only "perils" around are the (near) monopolies our nations allow/encourage. And they are just as dangerous when they are charging $15 for a CD or $0.15 for an SMS as when they are charging $15,000 for genetically enhancing your kids. In each case the price needs to be reduced by a factor of at least 100. And real monopoly busting, restricting intelectual property, etc. is the only good way to do it.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:47 AM on June 16, 2006 [1 favorite]


Interesting topic for a thread, but it's a single link to an article from EPPC's journal. So much more could've been done here. F'rinstance: Genewatch UK was briefly mentioned in El Reg's writeup of this year's Synthethic Biology conference in Berkeley. A key speaker at the event was bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. If Zoloth's name sounds familiar, it's because she's the professor who drew attention in 2002 to the resurgance of anti-semitism in U.S based universities.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:03 AM on June 16, 2006


(And no, I didn't throw the last link in to derail - eugenics plays as much of a role in transhumanist debates as corporate and political interests.)
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:07 AM on June 16, 2006


And lets not forget that we should be genetically modifying ourselves to be more Jewish!!!
posted by jeffburdges at 7:02 AM on June 16, 2006


Ah hell! This is derailed before we even get a chance to start good. I've always liked the Hedonistic Imperative. I mean, it's all about the hype and the hope. Nothing is going to materialize in the near future, except a bunch of conservative hand-wringing.

Now for the derail. We don't need to be engineering ourselves to be more inbred any more than people in the malaria belt need to be engineering themselves to be sickle cell carriers.

Is there an answer to "How are races different from one another?" that people are allowed to speak and that can be agreed upon? Gene Expression is a great, old, and venerated blog on the subject.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:57 AM on June 16, 2006


Not really Mr. Gunn. Part of the reason is that a lot of what we call race is purely cultural. There are numerous places in the world where two hostile populations identify as different racially but are genetically homogenous. You would be shot for pointing it out, of course.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:19 AM on June 16, 2006


As always with poorly understood technology: The promise is very real but quite oversold, and the perils are a big load of bullsh*t.

Right. Because Humans would never make a mistake. Or something that might have an impact outside of the intended use.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:52 AM on June 16, 2006


I've actually done a little bit of synthetic biology-related research. The people involved pay a good deal of attention to ethics and safety. Some of the fears mentioned in the article do seem somewhat oversold to me - the "emergent effects due to artificial combinations of proteins," for example, are, if they exist, much more likely to render the organisms less viable than to miraculously evade the control mechanisms engineered into the cell. If you use a knock-out strain of bacteria that's deficient in some sort of necessary biosynthetic compound as your starting point, you'd need a fairly fortuitous set of emergent effects to somehow make that strain capable of producing that compound and thus of surviving in the wild. Additionally, to produce these engineered systems, only well-studied proteins and genetic control elements can be used - otherwise, there are too many variables. [Though the author does note near the end of the article that synthesis of new organisms is a long, long way off, some of his earlier objections seem to be primarily about those sorts of organisms.]

The article's claim that "a microbe constructed from BioBricks would not contain genetic material transferred from another species" is not quite correct, by the way. The genes and genetic control elements used in BioBricks have to have been studied relatively intensively in their original organisms. Granted, their interactions with the organism they're being inserted into probably haven't been studied - but in that sense, the use of BioBricks isn't any different from the sort of transgenic studies we already carry out. Again, we're a long, long way from completely [or mostly] synthetic organisms and designing our own genes. We barely understand many of the proteins that have been discovered.

In any case, researchers already employ or are considering employing a fair number of the strategies mentioned in the article. Certainly, no one wants bioengineered organisms escaping into the wild, and there is consensus that a great deal of testing would be needed before the intentional release of a modified organism into the wild. Other strategies - for example, designating all BioBrick-containing organisms as BL3 or 4 - do sound like overkill.
posted by ubersturm at 10:49 AM on June 16, 2006


No need for panic (although reconstructing poliovirus from synthetic oligos is pretty cool) people; but don't get any false hopes up. The tools are there but it takes time and often a lot of money to put something togather that actually works.

Also, the cost of oligos they quote is pretty high. I get mine for 28 cents per base.
posted by porpoise at 11:19 AM on June 16, 2006


Very interesting subject. Thanks for the links.

FSM does not approve of this. God FSM didn't intend for this to happen. The holy book says so.
posted by nofundy at 12:16 PM on June 16, 2006


If you talk to some older scientists that were around when Molecular Biology started blowing up as a field, they'll tell you about the huge furor surrounding plasmids. Work with restriction enzymes was considered as dangerous as working with replication-competent virus and people were worried that randomly splicing genes here-and-there was going to bring about the end of all species as we know them.

It seems like the same fears of designer genetics, support of racism, and unintended consequences of messing with God's creation always come up with every advance in technology, and it takes a couple years for people to realize that their fears were unwarranted. It has to be this way, else we might miss the one time when our fears are actually warranted, but it sure would be nice if we could get a little perspective on the issue, rather than repeatedly getting all alarmist with every advance in technology.

Kid Charlemagne -
There are numerous places in the world where two hostile populations identify as different racially but are genetically homogenous.

You wouldn't be referring to the Sons of Abraham, would you?
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:32 PM on June 16, 2006


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