What happens when genetic engineering goes viral? I’m using the word viral in its Internet sense. The New York Times has a fascinating article on the rise of synthetic biology and genetic engineering in the ranks of amateurs, mostly students, and under the guidance of an organization called iGEM. Here’s where “viral starts”…
…synthetic biologists want to break out of this cut-and-paste paradigm altogether. They want to write brand-new genetic code, pulling together specific genes or portions of genes plucked from a wide range of organisms — or even constructed from scratch in a lab — and methodically lacing them into a single set of genetic instructions. Implant that new code into an organism, and you should be able to make its cells do and produce things that nothing in nature has ever done or produced before.
… a group of synthetic biologists that is focused on building up basic tools to make this process faster, cheaper and less research intensive, so that even the most sophisticated custom-built life forms can be assembled from a catalog of standardized parts: namely, connectable pieces of DNA called BioBrick parts, which snap together like Legos. Ideally you wouldn’t even need to know anything about DNA to manipulate it, just as a 5-year-old doesn’t need to understand the chemical composition of the plastic in his Legos to build a fortress on the living-room carpet.
[Source: New York Times ]
See, it’s going to be simple. Do-it-yourself life-forms. The whole world can do it, right out of a catalog.
This kind of enthusiasm and rhetoric I haven’t seen since the earliest days of the Artificial Intelligence movement. Artificial Intelligence was, at least by its own over-hyped goals, a bust. The field of AI has rebooted three times, and is undergoing yet another try ‘to get it right.’ Is synthetic biology of the same ilk?
No. For one thing, the field of synthetic biology is not new. Professionals in medical and academic laboratories have been at it for a couple of decades. We have a considerable amount of knowledge concerning the genome and we have the techniques to manipulate genetic information. The idea that some kind of genetic engineering can be packaged (BioBricks) and made simple, that’s fairly recent. It’s catching on with young people all over the world (read the Times article for some details), which means that unlike AI, bio-synthesis isn’t based on extremely incomplete knowledge. While our knowledge of genetics is certainly incomplete, we know more than enough to be dangerous.
iGEM: International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, is both an organization (iGEM 2009) and a contest. In fact, the main face of iGEM is the contest, held yearly for a number of categories of synthetic biology. It was started by a handful of MIT engineers in 2003 as a way to do synthetic biology with students as the main innovators. The iGEM contest of 2009 had 112 teams from every corner of the world.
The New York Times article seems very upbeat about iGEM. It is a success story, especially in terms of its pedagogical achievement. The article does mention that there is controversy about the use of genetic modification, and that synthetic biology has had its critics from the beginning. It also seems to say that while iGEM is aware of the possible problems; its thrust is innovation and enthusiasm.
That’s what AI had in its beginning. The thing is, when the AI software didn’t work – it didn’t work. When it failed, nothing happened. This cannot be said for some of the things that can go wrong with synthetic biology. Some things that go wrong could kill. Yes, that does not apply to 95% of what is currently being done with synthetic biology. That’s probably because it scientists and idealistic young people are doing most of it. However, if synthetic biology becomes as simple as the stated goal of iGEM, perhaps not all of the participants will be such nice people.
Until some synthetic biology experiment ‘gets away,’ criticism and warning language (such as this post) will often be passed off as ‘overdone’ and unnecessarily pessimistic. Let’s hope that’s the worst of it.