Intro to Synthetic Biology

January 5, 2013 (LocalOrg /Tony Cartalucci) – Professor Jamie
Davies walks an audience through the coming synthetic biology
revolution. Comparing it to the personal computer revolution of the 70’s
and 80’s, Professor Davies explains the lessons learned and how they
can be applied to developing an open and constructive use of synthetic
biology.

What is synthetic biology (video)?
It is the next step in genetic engineering – not simply copying and
pasting genetic code from one life form to another, but creating
entirely new genetic sequences, and thus entirely new life forms.
Already, competitions like MIT’s iGEM, pit universities and even high
schools against one another as they develop new forms of synthetic
biology using “biobricks” -open source, standardized components that can
be interchanged in the designing of a synthetic life form just as
engineers use standardized parts to construct machines and buildings
today.  

Examples of life forms created include bacteria that change color in the
presence of toxins in the environment, and yeasts that are transformed
into microscopic factories producing medicine.

The implications go further still – with the ability to read a human
genome and understand, and as synthetic biology matures, it may be
possible in the future to read one’s genetic code, correct the errors
that accumulate over time, and create repaired code that is reintroduced
into the body via gene therapy. This would mitigate degenerative
conditions stemming from aging, and all the diseases such deterioration
invites, including cancers.

Professor Davies most important talking point however, centers on the
DIYbio movement and how regular people are actively participating in
this revolution – and how such participation is essential in keeping
this technology free and available to all. He points out local DIYbio
groups springing up around the world and how amateurs and professionals
alike are teaming up to advance this new field of study. He surmises
that the great interest in synthetic biology is the ability to actually
build things (life forms in this case).

While there are threats of people abusing this technology, just as is
the case with any other form of technology – just like with information
technology and computing, the more people that are involved and actively
participating and the more decentralized the infrastructure is, the
greater our ability collectively is at defending against inevitable
abuses. The greatest danger is if this technology remains in the hands
of large institutions, corporations, and tangled up in a web of
contrived “intellectual property” claims.

Ultimately, one walks away from Professor Davies’ talk with a sense of
optimism, but also with a call for action. If we are to harness the full
potential of this technology, we will have to roll up our sleeves and
get involved. If we fail to do this, the technology will be patented,
black-boxed, copyrighted, and monopolized. The fear and real dangers
produced by genetic engineering today, stems from the fact that
immensely corrupt, centralized corporations monopolize the technology
and willfully and consistently abuse it to expand profits and control
over the very substance of life. The emerging field of DIYbio and
synthetic biology gives us a chance to level the playing field and put
both the technology and its benefits where they belong – in the people’s
hands.