In contrast with SynBioBeta which highlights the emerging bioeconomy, Synenergene invites scientists, philosophers, artists, and representatives of the civil society to engage in a discourse about the ethics and future impacts of biology as a technology. Artists were there to help us and the public engage in a future with synthetic biology, and the way it changes how we view the intersection of nature and technology. Check out this video of artist Koert van Mensvoort:
There was a great philosophical crevasse that lay between scientists and the representatives of civil society, who represented and advocated for marginalized workers, human rights, and the environment. Their main critique of synthetic biology were two: one, they saw synbio solutions as a "techno-fix" to relieve the symptoms of the greater systematic problems in how humans choose to engage with each other and the environment; two, there is a belief that there are not enough safe guards against the release of modified genetic elements in the environment, and these contaminant would wreck the delicate balance in nature selected for by evolution. In short, with synbio, humanity is rebuking their own nature and nature itself.
Let's break down this argument from the eyes of a biohacker. The term "techno-fix" is not just about going to 90's night at your favorite goth club. A "techno-fix" is a band-aide that masks the real problem, that human are the problem. The challenge I have with this politicized term is that it implies that there is no room for technology anywhere. Are antibiotics and vaccines "techno-fixes", as they balk nature's way of checking the human population and act as an important evolutionary pressure on our species? Isn't all medicine simply cheating nature and our own eventual death? They did make good points against monoculture and politics that harm subsistence farmers around the world. And I don't think that anyone in at the conference supported industrialized farming or the exclusion of the public from dialogues about these issues.
Synthetic biology allows humanity to continue to enjoy our lifestyles, and you know you enjoy your conveniences, with less of an impact on the environment. For example, while antibiotics save lives, the collateral damage they cause through wiping out probiotic bacteria and a spread of resistance is beyond human control; however, for the time being, it is acceptable. Biohackers are currently researching a new method, a strategic strike, to eliminate ONLY the bad agents by using phage technology in a project called BioStrike. The true issue civil society has is not with the solutions here, but that they are applied systematically to everything, as if to maximize the innovation's revenue, rather than on a need basis. I see the real tragedy of biology as a technology is that it is being kept proprietary and secret by incumbent players who only have the bottom line in mind. As with any technology, it is the context of its use, rather than its use itself that causes an ethical question. By democratising biology as a technology, local communities can create local solutions to the problems that they face. The technology and future technologies will be held by the community.
The second critique of meddling with biology in any way stirs emotions in people from many backgrounds, as if evolution was guided or somehow sacred. But, as I mentioned earlier, we pick and choose when we want to be "natural" and it is often when we are not suffering or dying. The "techno-fixes" of our past included farming and domestication of animals, the making of shelters, and the cooking of our food. The impact of these solutions have yet to be completely realized today, but molecular biology is helping us understand how much and how pervasive that impact is. We can use that same technology to test the impact of our new strategic alterations of nature done with synthetic biology. But should we meddle with biology and the "careful" tinkering of millions of years of biology? Well, genetics and how genes move about is not as careful as many believe. Viruses take host genes and insert them into other species without guidance. There are parts of our genomes implanted by viruses that move and replicate of their own accord during our lives. When this happens, genes can be turned on or off or nothing happens at all. In one such case in human history, one of these mobile elements caused a gene that is normal only expressed in the gut to be made in the mouth. This gene made an amylase which breaks down starch into simpler sweet tasting sugars. Could this have encouraged our ancestors to grow more and more starchy staples like rice and wheat, leading to civilization as we know it?
Synthetic biologists are also making small tweaks to biology and yes it could lead to a changes as big a farming's impact on human culture. But farming, like literacy, like computer technology was democratized, allowing more ideas to be attempted and more input and involvement of all stakeholders. At the end we all agreed in at least one things: that systematic capitalism was to blame and it was this cultural techno-fix that was preventing humanity's evolution.
My second year at SynBioBeta and I must say that this year was an improvement on last years conference. SynBioBeta is truly a conference embracing the bleeding edge of cultural and technological change that is happening in the biological sciences. This is illustrated by the diverse background of participants and attendees: there were biohackers, Open Science proponents, regulators, industry incumbents and FBI. This year featured talks about the new organized framework about regulation in the industry, using machine learning to engineer organisms, and user driven innovation in biology.
Regulators have been scrambling to reframe regulations to be sensitive to the amazing leaps and bounds synthetic biology has made in recent years as well as an unprecedented diversification of end use applications. The regulators are pressured by incumbent industry and GMO lobbyists to reform regulation, but it is the desire of academics and small players for the product and not the process to be regulated. As I see it, when you regulate processes you regulate progress. There are certain processes that should be regulated, but morals should be parsed from utility arguments. We all agree that the current regulations do not meet the need of society or scientific progress. I am interested in hearing your comments on this topic.
Machine learning and data science are now being applied to organism design. This is truly exciting. There has been a disconnect between research, development, and scale up. And this results in wasted time and resources when taking a great proof of concept to the production line. Right now, I would try to maximize the production of a desired product in small scale, where I have the most control over environmental parameters. This control element is not scalable to the same degree and this issue can compromise production. It leads to unforeseen crashes of an ideal organism due to unideal environmental conditions and months of troubleshooting only to find out that I must redesign the organism from scratch. Lame. Machine learning can take preliminary data from the proof of concept stage to create a pipeline for smart design. I could learn that I want to design an organism to produce my product at a little bit lower efficiency but a broader range of tolerance for certain variable environmental parameters. Equally good is that my predictive model can adjust to real time data gathered in development. I can't wait to learn how I can apply this tool to help with my bootstrapped experiments.
User driven biology in the cultural change that is happening at colleges and high schools, hackerspaces and garages. It is the cultural change that I talked about at the conference and the core belief behind this site. Computers were the tool which vitalized our economy and revolutionized our society 30 years ago. When the personal computer was first introduced, however, it was thought that it would be primarily used for personal finance. Synthetic biology is at this stage. Synthetic biology is accessible to anyone, due to new informal places that provide access. Videos online, reagents and equipment from Amazon and ebay, open source journal articles, and public labs like Counter Culture Labs where you can do science with real people. But these first adopters are using synthetic biology for practical things, like medicine and sustainability. This is very much how we used computers at first, but things change. We need to make changes in how we do things on and to our planet. We need to define baselines of our whole ecosystem so we can design it once again for space travel and if we need to on our home planet. We need more researchers, we need more scientists for the innovation we need to further the future of humanity here and everywhere. Go to my project page to see what I am doing with this tool. Synthetic biology is now in your hands. What are you going to do with it?