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.