Saturday, May 22, 2010

constructive biology

Edge | As creative as we become, and as industrious and as good as we are at designing and manufacturing living things, which we've been doing since the stone age — no matter how good we get at that, it's like calling a candle a supernova. A candle is not a super nova; it's not even in the same league. And we, as intelligent designers, are not in the same league as the "Intelligent Designer" that designed the whole shebang. We're not designing sub-atomic particles from scratch; we're not designing the Big Bang. We're really not even designing life; we're just manipulating it.

Think of the cell as operating system, and engineers taking the place of traditional biologists in retooling stripped down components of cells (bio-bricks) in much the vein as in the late 70s when electrical engineers were working their way to the first personal computer by assembling circuit boards, hard drives, monitors, etc. It's not an accident that the phrase "bio-hackers" is in the conversation, as this new crowd has a lot in common with the computer engineers who were around the homebrew computer club of the '70s leading the development of the personal computer.

Central to this move to engineer biology, to synthesize life, is Harvard researcher George Church.

"Today I am involved in a number of synthesis and sequencing endeavors," he says. "First, the BioFab group works together on 'constructive biology', which has a number of tightly overlapping parts of a Venn diagram."

"There's IGEM, 'International Genetically Engineered Machines' group, which is now in its fourth year , and has 39 universities involved. It's a very interesting social phenomenon; it involves wiki's and a lot of undergraduates, 39 teams of 10 to 20 people each. It's amazingly intense and enjoyable — kind of like the robot competitions, or the DARPA Grand Challenges. They compete to make cool things during the summer, and some go year-round working on those cool things — engineering life.

"Some of the people who started that group are also part of BioBrick Foundation, a non-profit, and a company called Codon Devices. So the founders of the field are defined by the intersection, or union, of those sets, depending how you look at it.

"BioFab group is also a subset of the Codon Devices scientific advisory board. And that's a Cambridge company that does synthetic biology. We're distinct from IGEM and the BioBrick Foundation and other synthetic biology groups that are emerging. "

Church points out that "almost every new thing is a combination of two old things. This is a kind of a union of engineering design principles that might be familiar to people in large-scale integrated circuits, combining that with genetic engineering, metabolic engineering, both of which are older — decades old, not ancient — and systems biology, which itself is a combination of feedback concepts, differential equations and so forth — those could be incorporated as well. There's also some bringing together of the chemistry and automation to make DNA — large highly accurate pieces of DNA — combining in concepts of laboratory evolution, which is relatively new. These things all meet together — kind of all these streams flowing together suddenly, all at once, into synthetic biology. Enough old things brought together into a new package that it consitutes an invention, a new field."

Unlike typical labs, a BioFab "Lab" can make a copy of itself. "Once you have a really great engineered biology system, you can make as many copies of it as you want: you could scale it up… (it does it itself; it's self-assembling). It's a dream of mechanical, electrical, and chemical Fab Labs — if they ever made, say, a milling machine that could make a copy of itself. That would be great. Then they'd have a self-replicating machine; that would be a milestone."

There are inevitable questions surrounding Church and his colleagues about "playing God" and there are also concerns about the kinds of bio-terror, lab accidents, and Frankenstein-like creations that have informed the writings of such thinkers as Bill Joy and Lord (Martin) Rees. These concerns were addressed by researchers in the field last month at SythenticBiology2.0, the second annual conference in this new field, which was convened at US-Berkeley. According to their Web site, "the SB2.0 community is developing a written statement describing some principles for advancing this new field in a safe and effective way, based on the third day of discussions and here."