November 16, 2008

Convergence08: Day 2 opening panel on synthetic biology

Synthetic biology debate:

Anderson says that there are many different definitions of synthetic biology. He likes to characterize it as ground-up genetic engineering both to study biology and to create new products. Part of the focus is on how much protein gets made and studying the conditions under which these genes get made. Wants to work at putting the engineering back in genetic engineering. Also a design component to it -- something systematic about it to ensure greater success; important to create goals and break them down into manageable components.

Hessel looks at DNA as a programming language. We are learning how to read DNA and building comprehension around the code. "Cutting and splicing DNA," he says, "is like writing a ransom note." Bioinformations is now referred to systems biology. He hopes biotech companies build their reading and comprehension systems; the completed human genome is testamant to this. The current problem is that we can't write the DNA code -- we can edit it, we cut it like scissors, and we splice it like glue and that's how we "write" the code. He's looking for people who are making compilers -- making it cheaper, faster and more elegant.

Caruso describes herself as not being an opponent or an advocate, but someone who is interested in the risks posed by synthetic biology. She wants to work towards more inclusive conversation. She thinks that debates like this are actually quite useless and not nuanced enough; not inclusive enough and not representative of the expertise out there. Caruso draws the analogy to nuclear power, Three Mile Island, and the exclusion of human factors in risk analyses. We have very little understanding of how genes make proteins and how it really works out in the environment. We don't know the forces of natural selection and the implications of "releasing this stuff." Caruso asks that we need to pose the right questions to these issues. She has a deep concern that too often the first question we ask is about the benefit and not the risk of a new technology. We need to think about staging, monitoring, tracking, licensing, and so on.


Hessel claims that open source will lower the barriers for entry and get more people involved in developing synthetic biology.

Anderson sees benefits in agriculture and having synthetic biology ferment the resources and converting them into fuels (clean energy). Hessel wonders why all the focus on fuels. Anderson says it's because a lot of the problems about doing so are already understood. Discussion shifts to approval, and having these technologies both FDA and EPA approved; Anderson sees this is a both a reality and a barrier to entry.

Current generation of this technology involved a hybrid engineered plant and and an engineered organism from the lab. Anderson says this organism is not released into nature.

Benford sees benefits in the medical sciences and talks about advances in Alzheimer's and diabates -- in those fields that are somewhat stuck and not thinking about evolutionary biology in their research and development.

Benford says the European version of the precautionary principle is nothing more than, "never do anything for the first time." But if we're to make any progress about longevity, argues Benford, we need to exploit the entire suite of biology and what it has to offer.

Caruso thinks Benford is being disengenious and takes him to task on his claim that we shouldn't be worred about such things as modded insects getting out into the environment and that they're going to be "killer" insects. We are currently inable to effectively contain these sorts of living organisms that are designed to (or could be accidently) be released. Caruso thinks we need a new approach that transcends the "I'm a Luddite," or "you're a Luddite" position. And at the same time researchers need to pay better attention to what they're actually doing. She says that history is littered with examples about scientists who don't pay long term attention and pretend that the rest of the world doesn't exist.

Most schools, says Hessel, don't even have synthetic biology programs. He believes that leaders in these fields will start to emerge and better organize this discipline -- but it may only happen after businesses have really gotten involved.

Anderson says there could be could be good convergence with robotics and software development to help will assembly and other construction issues.

Questions from the audience

Question is directed to Caruso about her unreasonable risk aversion, that delays don't improve the situation, and that benefits can outweigh the risks. The issue raise is that risks aren't actually being properly assessed. On this last point, Caruso agrees. She feels we need to better develop risk analysis and how it is applied to the world. It's a very politicized process and from any number of angles. That said, she claims to have never come up against a scenario in which someone demanded zero risk. She essentially feels that many of her collegues are in fact being reasonable and realisitc.

Next question is once again about risks and the audience members brings Christine Peterson into the conversation (despite her objection, as she's a panelist). Question is about how the Foresight Institute has dealt with risk assessment. Peterson responds by discussing Foresight's methodology on the matter and the adoption of certain guidance and methodology principles. Peterson redirects the question to Anderson, wondering if his group has a method to their risk analyses. He responds by saying that he's not given a blank cheque to do what they want, and that their students and researchers understand the implications of what they're doing, and that there are administrative controls in place -- although it is a very subjective analysis.

Third question is a request for panelists to conduct a panel on risk assessment; Caruso reluctantly agrees (was an unexpected turn of events for her).

Fourth question is about the computational aspect of synthetic biology and how computers are used. Hessel responds by saying that they are simply going about reverse engineering. He also notes that supercomputers will be necessary for protein folding. Notes that this can help with risk assessment and the creation of artificial environments for testing.

Next questioner addresses the Chernobyl disaster and how it's an ongoing problem that we need to put that into perspective. Questioner starts to ramble and go on about biological weapons and such. Peterson notes that the incoming US adminstration may better address the political issues surrounding potential threats.

What are the factors that are holding down progress in synthetic biology is the next question. Caruso doesn't think that there are any obstacles at this point, that money is being thrown at this. The question was really about technological hurdles, and Anderson notes issues with experimental design, about tackling longterm growth cycles, etc. Benford also notes the long timeframes. Caruso chimes in and notes that the computerization of sequencing technologies introduce a lot of noise and false positives -- that it's hard to factor out.

Keith Henson asks a technical question that none of the panelists are able to answer. Awkward end to the discussion.

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