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Synthetic Biology: The conclusion of the very beginning

Note: This ends Quinn Norton’s five-part series on Drew Endy and synthetic biology. The earlier installments are Everything you needed to know about human-created life forms but were afraid to ask, The dummy’s guide to engineering genes, Play God for fun and profit (mostly fun), and Managing the unmanagable future.

endy.jpg “Biology is a technology for manufacturing,” says Drew Endy. Engineered genes could remake mass-production and materials. Cells are proven nanotechnology with a history of creating large-scale output. Look around the room, anything manufactured or grown could very well be produced more efficiently in a cell. From impact resistant plastics to water proof fabrics or moisturizing cosmetics — it could very well make the most financial sense to design an organism that cooks up what you want in almost any existing manufacturing industry.

All of this is still a ways away. A genetic engineering job today requires a Ph.D in a subject like molecular biology. Often postdoc work is on the job description, experience working directly with genetic sequences, and amazingly comprehensive knowledge of a number of organisms … and, of course, the ability to be a team player. Genetic engineering is a boutique field. High status, highly trained specialists create changes out of the ATGC’s each time they are needed to serve specific business goals. “Imagine if you had to build a mechanical device, or a computer, and your work started with the refinining of ores to produce raw materials, and then next the processing of these materials into custom components, that you eventually assembled to produce a perhaps working system. That’s what genetic engineering is like today,” explains Endy.

Also: Dr. Endy wraps up on the impact of synthetic biology. (mp3, 5.1m)

Hackers and tinkerers are neither patient nor team players by definition. What they make reflects this fundamental difference. It took Bell Labs to bring us UNIX and the world we live in now. It took Linus Torvalds to bring us a happy fat penguin, and Google, the OLPC, and IBM as we now know it. What comes out of garages is different from what comes out of office parks, though they build and co-contaminate each other continuously. Thusfar, biology has been locked in office parks, bereft of its other half. Without ever finding out what it might have gained, the business side is likely to try to hobble the dabbler, the hacker, or the independent.

The question is not so much whether synthetic biology will remake society, but who will be in control when it does. Biotech companies are stumbling over each other to file patents by the palate. Already the company that created the base pairs for Endy’s MIT classes on building Biobricks projects, Blue Heron, is locked in a patent fight in federal court with Codon Devices, the MIT spin off company in the same field. Most of the research, including university research, is going to be locked up by the tightest IP law biotech companies can manage. Consequently, Endy’s fab projects are in a race with industry interests which echos Craig Venter’s private-sector race against the Human Genome Project. Genetics will almost certainly look like software, with open, viral, and proprietary products and competing standards in the marketplace. And like software, it will be the purview of multinational companies and high school hackers.

Hackers will go farther in the pursuit of scratching their own itches and seeing what they can do than someone that has to worry about a bottom line. It’s impossible to anticipate the variety of things people will dream up in their garages. Already we have transgenic glowing fish, and there will certainly be more of the same. Like any medium, humans will express themselves in the organisms they design. One can imagine sundials with digital displays, or graffiti that must be exterminated as well as cleaned up. And certainly we will have a whole array of colorful, glowing pets.

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