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ETech Preview: Creating Biological Legos

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If you’ve gotten tired of hacking firewalls or cloud computing, maybe it’s time to try your hand with DNA. That’s what Reshma Shetty is doing with her Doctorate in Biological Engineering from MIT. Apart from her crowning achievement of getting bacteria to smell like mint and bananas, she’s also active in the developing field of synthetic biology and has recently helped found a company called Gingko BioWorks which is developing enabling technologies to allow for rapid prototyping of biological systems. She will be giving a talk entitled Real Hackers Program DNA at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference, March 9-12, in San Jose, California. And she’s joining us here today. Thank you for taking the time.

RESHMA SHETTY: No problem. Happy to be here.

JAMES TURNER: So first of all, how do you make bacteria smell nice, and why? I get an image of a commercial, “Mary may have necrotizing fasciitis, but at least her hospital room smells minty fresh.”

RS: Well, the original inspiration for the project was the fact that for anybody who works in a lab, who works with E. coli, when you grow cultures of the stuff, it just smells really bad. It smells really stinky, basically. And so our thought was, “Hey, why don’t we reengineer the smell of E. coli? It’ll make the lab smell minty fresh, and it’s also a fun project that gets people, who maybe aren’t normally excited about biology, interested in it because it’s a very tangible thing. I can smell the change I made to this bacteria.”

JT: So what was the actual process involved?

RS: So the process was, you basically take a gene, we took a gene from the petunia plant, which normally provides an odor to the flower, and you place that gene into the E. coli cell. And by supplying the cell with an appropriate precursor, you make this minty smell as a result. So it’s fairly straightforward.

JT: Your degree, biological engineering, is a new one to me. How is it different from biochemistry or microbiology or genomics or any of the other traditional biotech degrees?

RS: Well, biology and biochemistry, and so on, are concerned with studying the natural world. So I’m going to go out and figure out how the natural world works. Biological engineering, instead, is really all about saying, “Hey, we have this natural world around us. Biology is, in some sense, a new technology through which we can build new engineered biological systems.” Right? So the idea is, what’s the difference between physics and electrical engineering? Electrical engineers want to go build. So in biological engineering, we’re interested in going and building stuff, too. But using biology, rather than physics, as the underlying science of it.

JT: Explain a little bit about the field of synthetic biology.

RS: So synthetic biology is a new field that’s developed over the past few years among a group of engineers and scientist all over the world who are saying, “Huh, you know, right now it’s really actually quite hard to engineer biological systems. Even just to put pieces of DNA together can be a fairly laborious and manual process that’s pretty error-prone. So how do we make that process easier? How do we make it so that an undergraduate or a team of undergraduates can go engineer E. coli to smell like wintergreen and banana in just a summer?” Typically, people usually assume that those types of projects are just too hard to do, because the tools we have essentially suck. So synthetic biology is focused on the effort of making biological engineering easier.

JT: What areas do you see synthetic biology having the largest short-term impact on?

RS: Well, I think you’re already seeing some of the impacts in, for example, the biofuel space. So there are a lot of folks interested in saying, “Hey, instead of pulling oil out of the ground, why don’t we just make it from a vat of engineered microbes?” And the project that’s the most intriguing to folks right now probably is a company called Amyris Biotechnologies, where they have a pathway for making an antimalarial drug. This is a drug that you can naturally find and extract from the wormwood plant, but these plants are pretty rare. And it’s really expensive to manufacture this drug from the plant. And so, in order to develop more cures, or essentially develop more of this drug and get the cost down cheap enough so that it’s actually an accessible cure for malaria for use in third world developing countries, they engineered microbes to produce the antimalarial drug. And so this is the poster child application of synthetic biology; by making stuff cheaper, you can essentially better people’s lives.

JT: A concern that some people raise about the ease of which one can order designer biology these days is that it’s becoming more likely, either by accident or design, for something particularly nasty to enter the environment. What’s your take on that?

RS: Well, for us, what we’re really interested in doing at Gingko is making biological engineering easier. And obviously, one of the aspects of what that means is you’re essentially democratizing access to the technology. You’re making it so that more and more people can come in and engineer biological systems. Now just like with any technology, by making it easier and making it more accessible, you’re both promoting huge advantages, and there are going to be areas for concern.

How do we know that the next time around when we have an outbreak of Avian flu, or whatnot, how do we know that the traditional “academic” labs and research institutes around the world are going to be prepared to respond? Maybe we can develop a wider network of people who can work towards engineering biological systems for good. You’re creating a larger community of people, that you can tap into to come up with useful things for society. So from our perspective, yes, we are making biology easier and we’re democratizing access to it, but we’re also working to make that community of folks who are doing this work as constructive as possible, and trying to create a culture essentially where people are trying to use these technologies for good rather than for harm.

JT: I guess my concern is that if you look at the history of computers and software engineering, the easier it gets to design things, and especially when you look at things like computer viruses, it’s gotten to the point now where essentially, there are the equivalent of these “send us a sequence and we’ll give you DNA [companies].” There’s “send us what you want your computer virus to do and we’ll send you back a computer virus.” I’m just a little concerned that the track record of humanity, when given easy access to new technologies, has not been great.

RS: Well, what’s the alternative to what you’re suggesting? Should we all get rid of our computers so that we don’t have the potential for computer viruses? You have to understand that, yes; there were some costs that came about with the computer revolution. But there were also huge benefits. You’re giving people access to information in a way that they never had before. So, in some ways, you can think about it that computers save people’s lives. If I have a rare disease and my doctor doesn’t happen to know how to diagnose it, I can go Google online and look for my symptoms, and potentially find the right doctor to go to to help cure myself, right?

So, the problem with every technology is that you have to take the bad with the good. So what we can do, basically, is to try to bias the technology into folks who are working around that technology towards good as much as possible. And that’s what I and others are actively working to do. So your question is — you’re ignoring all the good that has come out of things like making software programming easier and more open.

JT: The point’s well taken. One last question on the subject and then we’ll move on. My wife has told me — she took organic chemistry in college, and was told that basically once you have a degree like that, expect that the government’s going to keep an eye on you later on in life, if you’re ordering things, for example. Has there been any thought or talk about, for example, Homeland Security keeping an eye on what’s going on in this field?

RS: Well, I would say that the relationships have been actually much more positive than that. I think the idea has been for researchers in the field, and for folks from government, and folks from industry, to get together and figure out, “Hey, there’s a lot of good that can come out of this. But there is also some potential for accidents and harm. How do we work together to create an environment where the most constructive things happen?” So I would say that there has certainly been discussions with folks from government. But it’s not so much been a “how do we tamp down on this or how do we regulate this”, but “how do we work together to minimize the risk of something bad happening.”

JT: So changing topics, are kids who are entering secondary schools today prepared for a career in biotech? And what would you like to see change in the way biology is taught?

RS: Well, there’s a lot that can be said about the US education system, especially when it comes to science. But I would say that the coolest thing about synthetic biology is that it’s a very creative process, right? People get to go in and think about, “Hmm, if I wanted to design a biological system, what could I go build? Maybe I want to engineer E. coli that can take a bacterial photograph on a plate. Maybe I want to engineer E. coli to smell like wintergreen and bananas. Maybe I want to engineer a system that can detect arsenic contamination in well water so that folks in Bangladesh can test whether their wells are contaminated.”

There’s a huge potential for creativity. And so one of the things that I love about synthetic biology and biological engineering is that there’s a huge capacity to inspire young people to be creative and to get into science. And I think we’re seeing a lot of that with young folks who are interested in synthetic biology and trying to figure out “how do I get into this?”

JT: Do you think that the teachers at that level are up to the challenge of assisting with this stuff? Or are the kids going to have to be Heinlein-esq, and go off on their own to do it?

RS: As with anything, I think there’s going to be a spread. There are teachers who are actively looking to how to integrate these types of educational materials into their curriculums. They’d love to be able to integrate these types of ideas. The way that the community is trying to foster that is basically by making a lot of the materials and the research and the work that goes on as open as possible.

So, for example, I was a founder of OpenWetWare.org. It’s a wiki, basically, where biological engineers and scientists can post information about their work. Folks in the synthetic biology community have really taken to that, and basically posted their ideas and their work and their protocols, and by making this information available, you make it so that teachers and educators from all around the world can basically reuse that material in their own teaching. I think, for enterprising teachers who want to make use of or who want to incorporate synthetic biology into the curriculums, there are avenues to that. We still need better materials, don’t get me wrong. But I think we’re trying to do all we can to make it easier for educators to teach about the field.

JT: Your company, Gingko BioWorks, and I’m quoting from your website here, is focused on improving biology as a substrate for engineering. When you take the market-speak away, what does that really mean in terms of products and services? And who do you see your major client base as?

RS: So what Gingko’s trying to do is make biology easier to engineer. All of the founders of Gingko are actually engineers from other fields. So I was a computer scientist. We have a chemical engineer, a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer and another computer scientist as among our founders. So the way we think about biology and engineering biology is, we think about it in terms of the design cycle. I want to be able to design a biological system. Then I want to be able to build it. And then I want to be able to test and see whether it worked. And I want to go around that loop as fast as possible.

So what Gingko’s trying to do is initially focus on the construction step. To say, “Hmm, if I want to build a biological system, I need a set of parts. Essentially, I need my Legos which I can mix and match in order to build my engineered biological system. So I need my part set and I need a way to assemble those parts as quickly as possible into different biological systems so I can see which one works.” We think of it as essentially a platform for rapid prototyping of biological systems. And so that’s what Gingko is doing right now is developing the parts set and developing the technology for rapidly assembling parts into systems.

JT: So if I, or your typical Make magazine reader, said, “Gee, I’d like to go try this stuff out,” what kind of a setup do you need these days? Is it something that somebody with a few hundred dollars and the inspiration and a basic background could go set up? Or are you still talking about a lab full of glassware to do this?

RS: Well, it depends on exactly what the person wants to do. I think some basic experiments can be done pretty cheaply with an enterprising person using EBay and whatnot. But the thing I should point out is that in terms of do-it-yourself biology, or amateur biological engineering, there are regulations in certain places in this country in terms of doing genetic engineering. Such as taking DNA from one organism and putting it into another. So you would need, essentially, a lab facility to do some of the work, according to federal regulations. The situation’s not entirely clear, but I would say as a word of caution, there are some regulations in place that you should think about following if you’re interested in this type of thing as an amateur.

JT: So I guess what we need is the equivalent of a place where you can go when you’re repairing your car, that has the lift and everything.

RS: Exactly. Yeah. So there are lots of folks who are interested in developing essentially the equivalent of hacker spaces or community labs, where people can come together and think about how to have the right tools and equipment for engineering biological systems. So there’s a group in Cambridge here that’s already working on that problem.

JT: So you can go and say, “Charlie, could I borrow a cup of restriction enzymes?”

RS: Exactly.

JT: So can you give us an idea of what we can expect to hear at your ETech talk?

RS: Well, at ETech what we’re really looking forward to doing is chatting with folks about the technology and possibilities, as well as giving people an idea of what’s possible. So we’re going to do a little demo with some folks, where they get to probably engineer some bacteria to turn red, is what we’re going to try to do. So give people some idea of what’s involved in biological engineering.

JT: It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. So it’s going to be a very hands-on type of thing it sounds like?

RS: Yeah. Yeah. just listening to people talk can be a bit boring, so we want to give people a chance to play a little bit.

JT: All right. Well, I’ve been talking to Reshma Shetty who is one of the founders of Gingko BioWorks. She’ll be speaking at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technologies Conference in March, speaking on Real Hackers Program DNA. Thank you so much for talking to us.

RS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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  • Tony

    I’m sure Ms. Shetty is very nice and well-meaning, but I can’t be the only one to have read books like Oryx and Crake. This sounds like the scariest bit of dystopian hell I’ve ever heard.

  • Finn

    > sounds like the scariest bit of dystopian hell
    Or utopian heaven. Or something in between.

  • J.F. Miller

    For nearly every new solution there might be at least one new problem

    Since when has “life” become a technology? You degrade genetic traits to mere Legos – are you really that simple minded with your glossy marketing metaphor? Don’t you realize that those bacteria do smell bad to us for a reason?!?

    You really want to transfer the paradigm of homebrew/personal computing with its still not completely understood economic and social effects to the realm of biology?

    It is nearly impossible to write bug free code. Most bugs will only be discovered after many test runs. How will you create “test fixtures” for living organisms? Can you make sure that your test runs remain isolated?

    Sorry, but you really give me the creeps with your oversimplifications!

    There need to be some really tough legislation and restrictions pretty soon!

  • Josh

    No more scary than nuclear engineering in the wrong hands. But scary none the less.

  • Roy Batty

    Ms. Shetty makes this stuff sound easier than it is. Playing with E. Coli is standard high school science stuff. Making a Bio-weapon takes some serious lab equipment. Get over it folks. Only governments (like ours) can afford that kind of time and money. You should be more concerned about something leaking out of a govt lab than some bio hacker in a basement.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    There are logical fallacies in how Ms. Shetty discusses the risks of synthetic biology generally and of the “build a community of biohackers” that she and others have been working on for years.

    The risks issue first. She (prompted by Turner’s questions) compares the dangers of synthbio to the dangers of computer viruses and other kinds of malicious or dangerous software. This is not a good comparison. The analogy doesn’t hold:

    For the most part, if we have some computers that wind up running harmful software, we can simply unplug them. We can cut them off from the net. In a pinch, we can smash them with hammers. Certainly, a faulty computer operating a nuclear power plant or a chemical processing plant can cause very serious damage but even there, the potential damage is finite in scope.

    In contrast, the release of malevolent synthetic organisms into the biosphere is an action that has no “undo” switch. It’s an action that can negatively effect all life current and future, with there likely to be nothing at all we can do about it. It’s the kind of “oops” that can lead to, and I don’t exaggerate, the end (of everything human).

    That is a qualitatively different kind of risk than, say, the risks of the democratization of weapons knowledge or the risks of the democratization of software viruses or any of those things.

    Compare, if you will, the ethics and engineering responsibilities of two situations: “If you make a mistake here, you will blow up an area the size of 10-square city blocks,” vs. “If you make a mistake here, you will condemn the current generation of humans to be about the last and to die in misery and despair.” What kinds of “lab safety” practices apply in each case? Synthbio is practically unique among the engineering fields in that it is pretty much always faced with the “mistakes == end of humanity” scenario.

    So, pardon me, but I find Ms. Shetty’s glib analogy (“should we just get rid of our computers”) to be offensive and the height of irresponsibility.

    Now, Ms. Shetty speaks of some real problems in relation to security. She acknowledges (though understates) the dangers of synthbio and the falling price and spreading knowledge. To improve security, she and her peers are working on community building and on training. Part of the idea here is that the more “in touch” synthetic biologists are with one another, the more likely bad actors can be discovered before they do harm. The other part of the idea is that in the event of an emergency, the community of synthetic biologists can come together in a crash effort to attempt remediation.

    That is a fine schematic for a security strategy (or, rather, part of such a strategy). Indeed, some will recognize it as precisely that approach that has had some success in helping to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union from turning into too much of a black market for nuclear weapons specialists. The “community of mutual support and communication” approach to dangerous scientific knowledge hasn’t perfectly arrested nuclear proliferation problems, as we know, but it does appear to have had some positive impact on the problem.

    The fallacy here, though, is that if you build a community dedicated to treating poor practices as if they were best practices, then you’ve made matters less secure, not more secure.

    And that is exactly what has happened here.

    When I’ve interviewed practicing synthetic biologists they tell me that they don’t especially well understand more than the basics of gene expression, they don’t understand how modified organisms are likely to evolve (or if that can be characterized at all), they don’t generally measure their “containment” practices by outcome, their “containment” practices are based on decades-old, untested assumptions about the potential lethality of the organisms they work on, and so on.

    They’re frank, one on one and each and every one I spoke with, that they don’t think they’re engaged in safe practices but “that’s how we’re taught and there’s no will in the industry to change it.”

    And, to a one, they’re in hot pursuit of big money. And in that pursuit of big money, the false security story they spread, combined with the highly dubious economic promise of Moore’s like exponential growth in (rational) busienss models — those stories combine, reinforce, and put this small “sub-community” of synthbio hackers in leadership positions, with compromised practices, and conflicting incentives.

    The net effect, it appears to me, is a situation where hot money in the VC world takes advice from the security side of government and on that basis tries to convert Ms. Shetty and her peers into the next (from a capitalist perspective) Gates, Jobs, Joy, or Ellison. In so doing, they accelerate the spread of dangerously bad practices, thus undermining the intent of everyone involved from top to bottom. But the capital is afraid to question the security experts and the “engineers” are afraid to say no to the capitalists and the security guys aren’t afraid of anything but their own ignorance. So spiral down, we go.

    -t

  • Rick

    The problem with this kind of technology is that we are overreaching. We are infantile in our understanding of biological systems and their chemistry, and in our ability to “see” what’s going on – we don’t have “Star Trek” style scanners and won’t have them soon. As a long-term computer programmer, I know the potential for bugs rises exponentially with the complexity of the software. Biological systems are EXTREMELY complex.

    We should be concentrating on how to detect, contain and eliminate undesired pathogens and have that overengineered before we begin playing with something so dangerous. The facility should be out in space somewhere that if it gets out it can’t survive. Not on my one and only planet of humans.

    One bad pathogen can wipe out our whole species, or do vast damage, where a computer virus is unlikely to do that. People can make mistakes, but I have a hell of a lot more confidence in our ability to “pull the plug” with computer viruses than with biological ones…

    - Rick

  • http://diybio.org Mac Cowell

    I’d be interested in learning more about the federal regulations that require a person to have a lab facility in order to do genetic engineering, and the constitution of said lab under the law. I know Cambridge, MA has local laws governing recombinant DNA work, but I don’t know of any similar federal laws. I do know that work funded by the NIH must adhere to the NIH guidelines on recombinant DNA. Their funding is national in scope, and hence so are their guidelines, but they are not the law. More information here would be great.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Mac,

    Can’t help you with info about the rules and regs but you should understand that the tech here is crashing in price and is mostly made up of non-exotic components. It’s (starting to be) about as hard to shut down by regulatory means as, say, growing pot. That’s why there’s such interest in community building and building a community of trusted allies.

    For Tim, if he’s listening: this is an interesting “thematic” question, that you might have some interesting things to say about: Not just synthbio but in lots of ways tech is increasing the destructive potential of individuals by leaps and bounds. Do we want to adjust the “social contract” as regards privacy? Under what circumstances should I be able to insist on an inspection of my neighbor’s garage? Or, do we just pray? Or, what? I’m sure only that there’s no easy answer.

    -t

  • Anonymous

    Unbelievable,

    If my computer gets a virus, it maybe stops working and I’m inconvenienced. If my body gets a worst case virus and it stops working – I’m dead. Such a flippant answer to the risks of such tampering leave me wanting immediate regulation.

  • Sam

    Tom, you left out the word “self-replicating” in your post, but it seems that’s the issue you are talking about. Engineered biological systems aren’t dangerous because they are made of biology (e.g. an inanimate biological toxin is no more dangerous than any other chemical weapon, right?). Engineered biological systems are dangerous if they can self-replicate. That’s where you get your “mistakes == end of humanity” scenario presumably. Is this fair?

    So computer viruses self-replicate also. As do viruses that spread among birds. As do viruses made by synthetic biologists in labs. As do viruses evolving in your throat. As do invasive species in an ecosystem. The right question to be asking is what is the likelihood of any of these replicators “making the jump” to being a humanity-ending replicator.

    I’ll give you that a biology-based virus is likely to make the jump long before a computer virus would (though of course there is the Terminator or grey goo). However, I’m currently much more worried that the end-it-all replicator will jump out of a bird or bat into humans (e.g. SARS) long before it jumps out of the tube of a synthetic biologist into a human. And if that’s the case then we need to just get better at fighting off bad replicators. My view is that the work Dr. Shetty is talking about is likely to greatly improve our ability to fight such a humanity ending replicator rather than increase the odds of it showing up, but that’s a bet. Just not sure things are as cut and dry as you see them.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    No, Sam, I don’t buy your account – it has a lot of obvious problems that can be summed up abstractly by saying that your reduction of the issue to a “replicator” problem is false idealism. You’re being silly / pretentious with that reductionism.

    Sorry,

    -t

  • Sam

    Guess it is as cut and dry then.

  • TDG

    Life is pretty resilient and our biological creations to date have been pretty lame in a Darwinian sense.
    It is far more likely that the ‘easy’ gene splices (read mutations) that have been dangerous have already happened and when they continue to happen, the rest of life is ready for them.
    Ms Shetty in her basement is not likely to come up with anything dangerous and novel that the rest of the biosphere can’t hack (so to speak) and isn’t tolerating right now.
    Instead what she is doing is playing with grafts at the DNA level. She may also effectively speed up “selective breeding”. Both of these have been around for thousands of years and the fruits of this are hardly going to take over the world: Marino sheep and Persian cats would not last long in the wild, for example.

  • Hilda

    Mention ‘genetically modified bacteria’ and everyone becomes afraid. I see why- it’s microscopic, it divides, it spreads, it seems to grow on most surfaces.

    HOWEVER as a microbiology researcher myself, let me point out a few things that the public are often unaware of.

    1. Bacteria are not immortal. They reproduce in that frightening, binary fashion, but the originators do die of old age, like any other organism. You don’t necessarily have to imagine a swarm of GM bacteria growing relentlessly outwards from a single starting point.

    2. Modifying bacteria often puts the strain at a survival advantage. More often than not, GM bacteria cannot compete with an unmodified strain. They die from slow growth, from lack of resources.

    3. Microbiologists are not feckless players. We don’t throw used test tubes out the window to let the contents get into the environment. We realise the delicate nature of our work. The point is not ‘Hey, look what we can do’, it is ‘Hey, look how beneficial this work could be’. There are millions and millions of undiscovered bacterial strains and genes awaiting discovery. One of the most common antibiotics was harvested from a bacteria and is now produced cleanly for medical use. Some species of bacteria can break down harmful toxic waste. They are useful, and we are researching them *carefully*. We have families too.

    Don’t believe everything you read in the tabloids or simple media. I advise anyone who is interested / worried by a news article to do some general research elsewhere before letting their fears take control of them.

  • http://ginkgobioworks.com Reshma

    First off, I’m glad to see that the interview has sparked discussion re the safety and security implications of synthetic biology and DIYbioengineering. Open dialogue re these issues is critical.

    Based on the comments above, I thought I should clarify a couple points.

    1) As a few different folks have pointed out, engineering biology is hard! The ability to manipulate DNA has been around for ~30 years and yet realistically, there have only been a handful of successes in terms of building organisms that do useful stuff. I myself had a lot of first hand experience with failure during my PhD :) … it was part of the motivation for starting Ginkgo. We should definitely not minimize the scale of the challenge we face. However, I also think it is false to imply that until we have a complete understanding of biology, we can’t build anything. Engineers often successfully build systems in the face of an imperfect understanding of the underlying scientific principles.

    2) Re the risks of synthetic biology. I agree with Sam when he points out that biological systems are inherently different from other multi-component systems in their ability to self-replicate. (Also agree with Hilda and TDG when they say that most engineered organisms are wimpy :).) The risks and benefits around biological engineering are necessarily going to be different than other engineering disciplines. We need to tread carefully. However, while there is a potential for harm in letting this type of work go forward, there is also a potential for harm in not letting it go forward.

    For example, when recombinant DNA technology was first developed, several prominent scientists called for a moratorium on work until the safety implications could be considered more carefully. This moratorium lasted around a year and the biosafety level guidelines were ultimately developed that still govern biological research today. These efforts were mostly hailed as a success. However, there was also a cost to the moratorium. Let’s oversimplify and say that all research and work around recombinant DNA was delayed by one year. Does that mean that recombinant human insulin came out a year later than it otherwise would have? So how many people suffered because insulin wasn’t readily available? On the flip side, how many accidents were prevented by waiting and putting into place the biosafety guidelines? These things are hard to measure. But I don’t think “stop all work immediately” is the right answer. Instead, I favor an open discussion about the potential benefits and risks of democratizing access to biotechnology as well as doing everything we can to build a constructive community around this technology.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Reshma,

    Let it go forward, indeed. In a desert. Surrounded by self-destruct explosives. With live video/audio feeds to the net of every nook and cranny. Ingress and egress go through careful screening.

    One facility I hung out at had two environmental concerns: (a) they handled radioactive materials; (b) they handled synthbio materials.

    Well, if you travel the radioactive corridors, you get a monitor badge. People are actively measuring the quality of their containment practices. If your badge goes off – your exposure is significant – guess what, you’re off the job and fixing the facility that led to this is an institutional priority.

    Synthbio products? What they don’t just flush down the drain to the SF bay I could have stolen off the lab bench, were I so inclined. I could have swapped out plasmids for some of my own. etc. If I were of such bent. There is no monitoring. No serious care. Just a procedure manual (“swish with bleach before pouring into the sewer system”). Oh, and, the facility sits on a fault and was 1 city block away from the epicenter of an earthquake in the densest population area in the SF Bay Area.

    These guys are nuts.

    -t

  • Pete

    When is someone going to hack a contagious contraceptive and solve the population bomb problem?

  • RealyCantSay

    Just to add to the stew….

    First the problem, then the solution. The problem is very bad, so you’re probably not going to like the solution too much.

    Problem:

    We have had the problem of being able to design doomsday machines from very small parts for a long time (25 years and counting) now. The nano-technology version of this dilemma – technology is gerat until it wipes us all out – is equally as scary, and can be found in the book Engines of Creation / Engines of Destruction by Eric Drexler, a researcher in the field of nano-technology.

    There he introduces you to the “grey goo problem” as it’s called at MIT. It goes like this- someone programs a machine on the nano (very very very small) scale made of carbon. this machine does just two things- it gets around using solar energy and every time it meets anything made of carbon, it disassembles that thing (think -yourself) and uses the carbon to make more copies of itself.

    In the end, all the world is reduced to a grey-goo. Thus it’s name.

    The Solution:

    Either such scenarios are the result of an accident or they’re the result of malicious actors.

    In the first case, we’re all doomed since there really is no way to halt this kind of experimentation. If you think we have a problem with WMD now, just imagine trying to control the use of things which can be grown and created using the kind of equipment any country can just make, as opposed to our situation currently. If we blow ourselves up by accident, and we may, then we’re just an inherently too-curious / too ingenious species. You don’t shed too many tears of the dinosaurs, and what comes after us won’t spend too much time feeling pity either. Thy may however wonder why we invented a chattering pair of wind-up false teeth, but see Woody Allen’s Sleeper for details.

    In the case of say a Jihadist who thinks he’s going to kill the infidels while the true believers will be miraculously spared, what’s the problem? The problem is we as a species didn’t know enough about what makes human beings want to do such things and be religious fanatics. We didn’t study that, we didn’t try to DO something about it, the rate at which we applied science to understanding human behavior was out raced by the rate at which we applied science to biology.

    I think that this is the real problem. We’re in a race. It’s a race between our understanding of the world and our understanding of ourselves.
    If our understanding of the world outstrips the understanding we have of ourselves for too long and to too great a degree, we’re absolutely doomed, no question.

    But there’s another aspect to this that should be highlighted and that’s that in order to understand ourselves, we have to have the needed technology to do so and that technology may be what Reshma et. al. are working on. So in order to exterminate say, the impulse to extreme religiosity and fanaticism, we may need just these technologies.

    The way I see it, and here’s where I am going to put the anonymity afforded to me by the internet to good use since I don’t want my neighbors burning me in effigy, we should do whatever is possible to learn what makes human being prone to what we call extremism and we should exterminate that impulse, even if it means we end up rounding off the sharpness of some very ambitious and good people and thus slowing the pace of science somewhat. If it takes 25 more years to discover relativity because Einstein was not quite as single-minded as he otherwise would have been, then I say, so what?

    I also don’t think we should attempt to get agreement from all quarters on this project, I think we should just do it. I don’t think doomsday fanaticism is a problem with education- I know lots of educated, well fed, well housed , well treated Christians who deny that evolution is real but believe there’s all the evidence needed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Son of God. It’s not about being extremely stupid or deprived or any of the other things the fanaticism of the sort we see in the Middle East is said to be about It’s something else we don’t understand.

    As Sam Harris has pointed out in Letter to a Christian Nation, approximately 44% of the people in the United States are evangelical Christians and believe we are living in the End Times as predicted in their idiosyncratic and yes fanatical interpretation of a collection of folk stories, allegories, and manufactured propaganda written in the Bronze Age and found in the desert they call the Holy Bible. That fact, as he rightly points out, is a national emergency. If you’ve ever actually tried to talk to, much less dissuade, any of these people about their beliefs, you can extrapolate from that experience the hopeless situation we face in defusing the fanatical belief systems prevalent in the Middle East.

    Here’s how to think about this. We’re in a race. It’s a race against how much we are able to manipulate the world as opposed to manipulate ourselves. We are, still, just whatever evolution spit out over a couple hundred million years in order that we live long enough to mate. That’s it. We have not applied our engineering to ourselves. We are in horror of the idea. The reality is, if some portion of us doesn’t change its mind about doing that, we’re all going to die by our own hand, as the readers of this column have almost universally to pointed out.

    I told you you weren’t going to like the solution. I’m not crazy about it myself.

  • KTG

    44% is staggering. However, as someone who was an economic statistician for a couple year immediately after college, statistics without careful analysis are not “facts” as they appear to be. I suppose the question is if their behavior is effected by this end times philosophy. Surely they still perform some sort of investment in their children, grand children, etc. that would be irrational in the “end times” to some extent.

    As far as the meat of the issue-biological engineering is concerned, most of the apparently valid points brought up are null and void. The research and progression will occur with or without us. I’d rather us get and understand the nuclear bomb first. Of course that begs the question.. would this unlocking of catastrophic potential occur at all without us? At this point I believe so.

    My hope is that sites like this* will keep us up to date with digital security issues at least.

  • ReallyCantSay

    Well the question is what are we going to spend our limited resources researching? It seems to me that we’re not interested enough in solving our major problem- human behavior in it extremes. Not interested and too timid by a large measure. We’re more interested in enabling ourselves to be even more destructive. We have a pressing problem called human nature.

    You know what 9-11 was about? It was about the enabling through technology of a small group of fanatics who long for the End Times (adjusted for culture)to effect a huge effect far beyond what they might have done before at any point in history.

    That technology was the intersection of architecture – very very tall buildings with 20k and more people in them, with very very large jet planes. When we build very very tall buildings, we don’t worry that there’s huge potential energy and a lot of people in the resulting structure and that someone could use that against us.

    And so on with all the rest of our technology- we never examined it for its robustness in the face of malicious actors. And as our technology hurtles forward, the number of people needed to make a 9-11 happen tends towards one while the amount of damage that person can inflict tends toward infinity.

    That is what 9-11 was at its essence. It’s not like 12 pissed off religious types have never gotten together to inflict misery before. It’s the technological wonderland those people find themselves in that makes them so dangerous.

    And as that multiplication of ability to do damage times number of fanatical people needed to do it tends towards infinity, what have we done about it? Upped the ability to do damage while doing nothing about the production of fanatical people.

    Why does someone believe that the End Times is a good thing? What goes wrong or is wrong inside their brains? We better find an answer to that and soon.

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  • Mike

    Good story Google