Hacking Life

June 27, 2010

About a month back, there was an announcement that a group at the J. Craig Venter Institute at Rockville, MD had succeeded in their efforts to chemically synthesize the genome of a simple microorganism. The project was alternately reported in the press as “synthetic life” or “creating life”. What the team did was to use a process that they devised to create a string of DNA that matches the DNA in a naturally occurring micro-organism, then they inserted their string of DNA into a cell that had had its own DNA removed. Low and behold, the new “synthetic” organism works just fine. It reproduces and does all the things that a single-celled organism is expected to do in order to qualify as being alive. This is not so much a science achievement as a technology achievement. Scientists have long assumed that this was theoretically possible, but no one had been able to successfully manipulate such a long piece of DNA before. It’s a little off the track for a food blog run under the auspices of a Community Supported Agriculture, but it happens that I know one of the authors on the paper that was published in Science personally, so I’m going to blog about.

There is a lot of pretty good information on this event that has already been widely distributed on the web. I would direct people who want an accessible and unbiased report on what this team achieved to the story from the Manchester Guardian, in the UK. There is a pretty cool video on the site that you can also watch. You can also go right to the horse’s mouth. The Venter Institute maintains a pretty good web site, themselves. Now in the interests of full-disclosure, I should mention that I have a grant from the Sloan Foundation in which I am collaborating with some people at the Venter Institute on a project to discuss the ethical implications of synthetic biology. You can regard this blog as an “advance notice” of what that work may produce, though if you pass any of this on you should also mention that the actual project is still very much in progress and that we have not reached any conclusions that we are prepared to share.

In conjunction with this work, I look at a lot of websites. One of the scientists I met on the project directed my attention to a website that nominally has nothing to do with synthetic biology. It’s a site called “bunnie’s blog” and it is apparently a pretty famous blog written by someone who is well known among computer scientists. Most of the posts deal with pretty technical issues in information technology, but bunnie clearly has a side interest in biology. According to the site, all the work is licensed under Creative Commons, which I take to mean that bunnie will not object to me posting a link to the site here.

The particular blog that interested me is called “On Influenza A”. The blog basically tells people who understand computer viruses how they can use that knowledge to understand a real virus. It gets into stuff about “ports” and “RNA subroutines”, stuff that is way too complicated for my blog. But here’s the bit that ties this to synthetic biology. The blog talks about how you could re-engineer a virus such as H1N1 to make it more deadly, and how you could order the DNA to do this from a website, quoting bunnie, “such as the cutely named Mr. Gene”. I think that the real ethical significance behind synthetic biology may have very little to do with anything that could legitimately be called “creating life”, and everything to do with the possibility of hacking the swine flu and ordering replacement DNA from Mr. Gene. There are lots of people who understand computer viruses out there, and there are plenty of them who can afford the roughly $100,000-$250,000 it would take to set up a molecular biology lab in their garage. If bunnie can figure out how to hack a real virus, I’m pretty sure that there are other people from the computer world who can do it, too.

The larger implications of this are unclear, but they are not altogether unrelated to farming. One of the actors in opposing synthetic biology is the ETC Group, formerly known as Rural Advancement Fund International or RAFI. Under the RAFI designation, the group cut its teeth on defending the interests of poor farmers from developing country, especially when genetic information from the seeds they develop was appropriated by plant breeders and biotechnology companies. As ETC, the group has been one of the most important critics of GMOs and agricultural applications of nanotechnology. ETC seems to assume that the implications of synthetic biology will follow the same trail as agricultural biotech: big multinational companies that use the technology to pursue profits at the expense of poor farmers in the developing world.

As I see it, bunnie’s blog suggests a different trajectory, one that is more like the world of computing where very small inventers and entrepreneurs do a lot of stuff in their garage. A few of them become Microsoft, Apple or Google, but lots of them use a CreativeCommons license, develop share ware or otherwise nibble away at the dominance of the big boys. But I do not see this as all happiness and light. There are also the adolescent boys that are spending their time figuring out how to swamp my mailbox with invitations to accept a transfer of funds from Africa, or to attend a prestigious conference on humanitarianism in Burundi. Then there are the guys who make computer viruses that cause my system to crash. Unlike Monsanto (or Michigan State, for that matter), I don’t expect these guys to have their projects approved by the institutional biosafety committee, and I don’t expect them to have an attorney that will tell them about the regulatory hoops they must jump to get their new synthetic organism on the market.

It’s a new world, folks. Let’s not fight the old battles instead of the new ones.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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