Filmed on Monday November 17, 02008

Drew Endy, Jim Thomas

Synthetic Biology Debate

Drew Endy

Drew Endy helped start the newest engineering major, Bioengineering, at both MIT and Stanford. His research teams pioneered the redesign of genomes and invented the transcriptor, a simple DNA element that allows living cells to implement Boolean logic. He is also a co-founder of Gen9, Inc., a DNA construction company, and the iGEM competition.

Jim Thomas

Jim Thomas is Research Programme Manager for ETC Group and author of Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology.

Bioengineer Drew Endy is the leading enabler of open-source biotechnology. Technology historian Jim Thomas is the leading critic of biotech, based with ETC Group in Ottawa.

"Synthetic Biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology, with the ultimate gils of being able to design and build engineered biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and maintain and enhance human health and our environment." -- Wikipedia.

Synthetic biology is swarming ahead all over the world, at a self-accelerating pace far greater than Moore's Law, with a range of impacts far greater than genetically engineered food crops. Jim Thomas raises the question: "Is Synthetic Biology reckless or wise from the perspective of 'the long now?'. I feel the synthetic biology community is driven by immensely short term assumptions and motivations, and as a result the medium term prospect for this platform holds both predictable problems and nasty surprises."

Drew Endy says: "Jim and I have somehow managed to establish a productive working relationship, and feel that there is now a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop the cultural foundations needed to support long term and constructive discussions of the issues existing and emerging with biotechnology---safety, equity, security, community, and so on."

The point of Long Now debates is not win-lose. The point is public clarity and deep understanding, leading to action graced with nuance and built-in adaptivity, with long-term responsibility in mind.

Terms of Biocontainment

“I want to develop tools that make biology easy to engineer,” Drew Endy began. The first purpose is better understanding fundamental biological mechanisms through “learning by building.” The toolkit of Synthetic Biology starts with DNA construction and ascends through DNA parts, to devices, to standardized systems. An organism’s DNA code, and therefore the organism, can be digitally uploaded, stored, distributed, and downloaded. Life forms are programmable. So far 3,500 standard “BioBrick” parts have been developed for free distribution, and the number is growing geometrically. The number of amateur and student bioengineers also is growing geometicallly.

“There are 20,000 edible plant species,” Endy noted. “At present we eat only 30.” Synthetic biology can help diversify agriculture. Or how about engineering a gourd that can grow into a living house?

Endy concluded with five questions… Should teenagers practice genetic engineering? (Yes.) Should military weapons involve biotechnology? (No.) Should BioBrick parts be patented or freely shared? (Free.) Will biohackers be good or bad? (Good, if we help.) Should genetic engineers sign their work and publish it? (Yes.)

Jim Thomas asked Endy how he would defend against commercial interests locking up Synthetic Biology with patents? Endy said the best hope is building an open-source community that grows faster than businesses and out-innovates them.

Thomas began his statement by pointing out that it usually takes a whole generation to understand a new technology, so he urges moving slowly and cautiously, but Synthetic Biology is advancing at breakneck speed, and the window of opportunity to have effective public discussion and control is closing.

He cited the history of synthetic chemicals, which began in mid-19th century. The technology quickly became highly concentrated in an oligarchy of monopolistic companies, and then it was easily commandeered by government in wartime. I.G. Farben supplied the poison gas for the death camps. “Powerful technology in an unjust world is likely to exacerbate the injustice.”

Thomas said he worries when he hears comments like, “Anything that can be made by a plant can be made by a microbe.” If that’s played out, it means the death knell for everyone who works in agriculture, a vast economic restructuring. There’s so much novelty coming so fast from Synthetic Biology, no predictive models or regulatory models can hold them. He recommends these new tools be strictly contained so there is no release of new life forms into the biosphere, and there should be no commercialization of the technology at all.

Endy asked Thomas if it’s okay to make anything in a bioreactor vat? Thomas said, “Yes, beer.”

For different reasons, both debaters wanted to see Synthetic Biology kept from domination by commercial patents. For Thomas, it would lead to unjust monopoly answering only to profit. For Endy, it would paralyze open-ended research.

More Seminars


SALT Summaries Book

$2.99 Also available as a paperback book

Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.

Seminar Sponsors

David and Abby Rumsey • Kim Polese • The Kaphan Foundation • Garrett Gruener • Scorpio Rising Fund • Peter Baumann • Brian Eno • Greg Stikeleather • Cameo Wood • Ping Fu • Peter Schwartz • Lawrence Wilkinson • Ken and Maddy Dychtwald • Future Ventures • Ken and Jackie Broad • AtoB • WHH Foundation • Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan • Jackson Square Partners Foundation • The Long Now Members

We would also like to recognize George Cowan (01920 - 02012) for being the first to sponsor this series.

This is the legacy site. Return to the new site.