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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine


by ~ November 20, 2008.
Permalink | Filed under: 21st Century Risk, Collaboration and Sensemaking, Hybrid Vigor, Policy and Decisions.

I don’t know what kind of planetary alignment took place over the past week with regards to synthetic biology, but whatever it was, I like it.

Over the course of five days in November, from Thursday the 13th to Monday the 17th, four conversations about synthetic biology took place. They involved everyone from non-profit leaders to engineers, social scientists, biologists and government regulators. We need more open-minded, smart people from many sectors thinking and talking about this technology, and pronto.

What on earth am I talking about? If you’ve never heard of synthetic biology, you aren’t alone. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, less than one in 10 (9%) Americans say they have heard some or a lot about synthetic biology — and a whopping 67% have heard nothing at all. [Edited in response to first comment. Never let it be said that I do not listen to my critics.]

But venture capitalists, multinational chemical, energy and “life science” companies, and just about every government agency you can name are already investing millions of dollars to develop commercial synthetic biology applications. According to one report, the research market in 2006 was already $600 million, and “the potential for growth in the next 10 years is projected to expand this market to over $3.5B.”

Proponents and opponents and everyone in-between agree these applications will have a direct and significant effect on our lives and on the planet. (I’ve put links to good/accessible background reading at the end of this post.)

The first event was on Thursday the 13th, a day-long “teach-in” in San Francisco, held by and for civil society groups and NGOs, which as far as I can tell was organized by the ETC Group in Montreal. It was private, so there’s not much else to say about it — I found a link about it on the Food First site. If you want more information, contact Jim Thomas at the ETC Group.

The second, on Friday the 14th, was hosted by the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which was a conversation with — well, it was with me, actually, and Rick Weiss, a former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (you may know him from his previous incarnation as the Washington Post science writer). The occasion was the publication of my paper on synthetic biology, which you can read or download here. The audience was terrific, with representatives from the biotech industry, government regulators and academics from a variety of fields.

The event is archived here.

The third was a Sunday morning panel on synthetic biology at Convergence 08 in Mountain View, CA, billed as a place where “the world’s most dangerous ideas will collide.” Moderated by Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute, the first organization to educate society about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, the panel included Chris Anderson of UC Berkeley’s Department of Bioengineering, the physicist, novelist and life-extension proponent Greg Benford, Andrew Hessel, a supporter of and activist for open-source synthetic biology, and me.

You can read one commentary about the conference, including our panel, here. Our panel is specifically discussed here.

And finally, on Monday night, the Long Now Foundation hosted a conversation in San Francisco, between synthetic biology pioneer Drew Endy of Stanford and critic Jim Thomas of ETC. You can read Long Now founder Stewart Brand’s succinct blog post on the event here.

Steven Levy (most recently of WIRED) was there; he called the event “well-argued, excruciatingly civil debate about the wonderful/dreadful future” of synthetic bio. (At least one synthetic biologist is recommending that his peers read Levy’s first and classic book, Hackers, for a reality check on their perceptions of some of the issues on the table. I would concur that this is a splendid idea.)

I hope that all of us who were involved in these civil and civic-minded conversations can find ways to keep them going. And I hope that those of you who don’t know much if anything about synthetic biology will take the time to learn a bit more about it. To that end, I’ve dug up a few overviewy-type things that I hope will be helpful.

It’s hard to find explanations that aren’t technical, or that don’t take one point of view or another (or both), so keep that in mind as you explore the references below:

• YouTube video of Drew Endy defining synthetic biology. Drew is one of the founders of the field. This is a wee bit technical but entertaining enough that it doesn’t really matter. I suspect you’ll get the drift.

• “Backgrounder: Open Letter on Synthetic Biology“, by the ETC Group, a Montreal NGO “dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights.”

• My paper: “Synthetic Biology: An Overview and Recommendations for Anticipating and Addressing Emerging Risks,” published by Center for American Progress and funded by the Wilson Center.

• A paper published in Public Library of Science about intellectual property, one of the most critical non-science issues facing synbio: “Synthetic Biology: Caught between Property Rights, the Public Domain, and the Commons,” by Artie Rai and James Boyle

• A useful essay by Andrew Maynard, the chief science advisor for the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, about the parallels between synthetic biology and synthetic chemistry, is here. Maynard is also the author of the exceptional PEN publication, “Nanotechnology: A Research Strategy for Addressing Risk.”

Feel free to send me links to other good papers, or post them in comments.


  1. Jonathan Cline

    You could be embarrassed by your sensationalism of your paragraph above: “According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, less than one in 10 (9%) Americans say they have heard some or a lot about synthetic biology — and a whopping 67% have heard nothing at all.”

    A “whopping” percentage of Americans haven’t ever heard of Web 2.0, yet millions of dollars are pouring into that technology, too, and we’re already using it right now. A “whopping” percentage of Americans haven’t heard of many things which effect them every day; that is why we are a Republic instead of a Democracy — because the opinion of experts is better than the opinion of the uneducated average American. Your use of the term “whopping” at all, is whoppingly surprising.

    If 9% of Americans have heard of synthetic biology is amazing, considering the field is formerly less than 5 years old — the first conference on the subject was only held in 2004. It makes me wonder which Americans were asked in the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies survey, and how many of them were asked. Less than 9% of Americans might know how much saturated fat is in a McDonald’s french fry, although they eat them by the dozens, nearly every day.

    If you would like to write position articles, that’s great. Please avoid sensationalism. Remain objective. Avoid surplus use of unwarranted adjectives to bias the opinion of your readers.

    When I run across opinion pieces on science, I’m always reminded of Y2k. You remember Y2K? Maybe not.. because nothing happened. After all the articles portending doom, when Y2K arrived on Jan 1st, 2000, nothing happened. The same will happen with synthetic biology in terms of the “doom and gloom” — nothing will happen.

    You might want to write a paper, instead, on the potential for the decreasing technological lead of the U.S. with regards to the sciences, seeing that the Ministry of Finance of Hong Kong spoke at the Synthetic Biology conference, pledging significant government support and funding for Hong Kong’s synthetic biology programs, and seeing that Asia doesn’t seem as concerned with genetic modification of organisms (such lack of concern is likely due to lack of religious spillover — aka, Biblical metaphors — into state governance). Remember, a “whopping” percentage of Americans can’t even pass a basic algebra test. And yet, a “whopping” percentage of technologists in Asia have the potential to kick the technological muster out of America. If anything, the U.S. had better focus more effort on the sciences, including synthetic biology, in order to maintain the lead on technology — if we intend to continue enjoying our high quality of life. America’s baby boomers are aging. Who is more likely to solve our own nation’s health problems.. yes, it’s the American researchers in the life sciences. That’s the real issue which should be on the table: how to enable scientists in the U.S. to do synthetic biology better, and how to make the science involved more openly published online.

  2. Denise Caruso

    You’re right about “whopping.” I did a strike-through in the text. But I’ve been pondering it since I got your comment, and I think the reason why I “whopped” the number is because of the amount of commercial investment and the drive to market, largely under the radar. Under those circumstances, it makes me nervous that so few people, relatively speaking, have heard of synthetic biology.

    If you want to know more about the methodology for the Wilson Center’s surveys, the papers are posted (I think I provided a link, didn’t I?) They’re quite transparent about it.

    As for Y2K — of course I remember it. I’ve been writing about technology since the early ’80s; it wasn’t a story that could be overlooked, no matter whether you thought it was much ado about nothing or a cataclysm in waiting.

    My favorite quote at the time, which came from someone Italian politician responding to Y2K concerns about all the pilgrims that would be flocking to Rome, said, ‘The problem is so huge there’s no point in getting hysterical about it.’ I think I used it for my New Year’s party invite; it still makes me laugh.

    I’m not sure whether you’re a biologist or a computer person, but one of the things people tend to forget about when they say ‘Y2K didn’t happen’ was that squadrons of programmers spent lots and lots of time working on mitigating the problem in advance.

    As for ‘nothing will happen’ with synthetic biology: (a) you can’t know that, and the statement does not take into account much of the history of science, where a failure to look more broadly at consequences led to some very unpleasant outcomes; and (b) unlike Y2K, the SB community is not taking large-scale, long-term risks and unintended consequences seriously — or if they are, they are keeping it to themselves.

    Also you have made a logical leap here about my position that is inaccurate, and that I want to be sure and correct.

    I could not possibly agree with you more about the need for more research — more and more! — and whenever I speak publicly about synbio I make that very clear. Advocating for careful consideration of all potential outcomes and acknowledging the need for (much) more funding for research (especially public funding) are not mutually exclusive, at least not for me.

    But I think it is dangerous to have so much basic research tied so quickly to commercial development, particularly in a brand new field that is built on what I think is still a very questionable scientific premise: that biobricks are like circuitry that operate independently, with the same kind of predictability. As I’ve said elsewhere, the ENCODE study is just the latest evidence of the need to re-examine anything built on that premise.

    One of the many problems with the heavy commercial slant to SB research is that the results are generally considered to be proprietary business information. The larger scientific community needs to see this data, and replicate it. Just as importantly, it needs to know more about the experiments that failed. Failure is often even more illuminating than success.

    As for my concerns about risk: I’ve done extensive research into risk assessment methods for technology innovations like genetic modification. I spent four years writing a book on the subject. And I am convinced that being thoughtful about risk in the ways that I’ve written about actually makes for better science and opens new horizons for discovery that narrower perspectives overlook.

    I’d be happy to direct you to some of those studies if you’d like to learn more. Thanks.

  3. Eric Nehrlich

    Hi Denise, thanks for the link! I failed to get your card at the conference, and would love to follow up with you on a couple things - can you send me email? Thanks!

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