Sunday, June 6, 2010

Synthetic life

I'm watching the science channel's "Creating Synthetic Life" discussion panel on TV right now....  and Paula Zahn  makes me want to cry.  Her toughest ethical questions for the panel are "Are we playing god?" and "It scares me."

They did talk about bio-terrorism, but they dismissed the objection rather quickly with something to the effect of,
"human beings are cruel to each other, but this also has the potential to be very beneficial to us as well."  This is very true, but if a terrorist group can literally manufacture any virus that they have sequenced, then a hemorrhagic virus could cause quite a lot of damage before anyone can do much about it.   She should have pressed much harder on these points.

But overall, I'm in support of this research.  I'm actually far more excited by this then stem cell research has ever excited me (which it never did much).  Whereas stem cell research might provide many medical breakthroughs, synthetic biology could allow us to create new sources of fuel, help clean up oil spills, remove carbon from the atmosphere, etc.  SCR benefits are almost exclusively medicinal, synthetic biology is affects everything from energy, to manufacturing, to medicine, to food, to well, anything that we can get living things (bacteria) to produce.


  1. Promethean fire is best wielded by us sooner than our enemies. An analogy against the argument of the fear of bio-terrorism. For the most part, terrorist organizations are decades to years behind us technologically. Our early exploitation of the tech and creation of the facilities required to make the very best use of synthetic life will help us to prevent attacks by it (innoculation, detection, etc). It's the Dr. Moreau problem, if we don't explore it first, someone else will, putting us at a technological and possibly security disadvantage. Besides, our tech-dependent economy needs a new fix, perhaps this is it.

  2. I dunno about our economy needing a new fix. The information tech still really hasn't reach saturation, evident by concerns that the internet might run out of ip addresses fairly soon.

    But no doubt it would be some groundbreaking IPOs that would eventually develop from this.

    Problem with dismissal of terrorism fears is that the EASIEST things to do with this tech, is manufacture viruses. They had already manufactured a virus years before they manufactured the first synthetic lifeform, but since viruses technically arn't alive, they couldn't say they had made artificial life.

    All one would need to replicate their technique would be incubators, yeast, some chemicals, and a sequenced DNA of a deadly virus like Ebola. Those have already been sequenced and widely available.

    One of the hopes is that a kit would be available to students and others so that they could repeat the same process. If such a kit could be made, then it wouldn't be hard at all for anyone to manufacture ebola.

    Manufacturing something like a bacteria that would eat oil, would be much harder, but terrorists aren't interested in that.

    In fact none of the people on the panel really said that terrorists couldn't use their techniques to create a biological weapon. But rather downplayed the possibilities, and emphasized the beneficial aspects of it.

    But again, I'm pretty excited by this stuff, and fully supporting of it, despite the risks.