2 December 2009

The next IT industry: Synthetic biology

Filed under: risks, Singularity University, Synthetic biology — David Wood @ 2:30 am

Synthetic biology will be “the next IT industry”, and will even be “more important than the last one”.  These are two of the claims in the extraordinary video from the Singularity University featuring Andrew Hessel.

The video lasts nearly one hour, and is full of thought-provoking material.  The subtitle of the video is “hacking genomes”.

Here are just a few of the highlights and topics I noted while watching it:

  • Cells inside organisms are in many ways akin to computers inside networks
  • People with engineering backgrounds are bringing engineering ideas into biology
  • push-button biology: “dream is to design … press a button, and have the design translated to DNA sequences that can be synthesised and put to work in living cells”
  • “DNA printers” will become better and better
  • iGEM: international genetically engineered machines
  • DIYbio: “an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers”
  • Developing a genetic programming language
  • Creating the conditions for the emergence of a new generation of “computing whiz kids” – the synthetic biotech equivalents of Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates
  • “We’ll soon see molecular biological labs on iPhones”
  • Cost decrease curve for DNA synthesis (“writing DNA”) is tracking that for DNA sequencing (“reading DNA”), lagging it by around 8 years
  • “The human genome synthesis project is coming”

This is the same field where Craig Venter (famous from the first human genome project) is now working.  To quote from the website of his company, Synthetic Genomics:

The Global Challenge: Sustainably meeting the increasing demand for critical resources

The world is facing increasingly difficult challenges today. Population growth resulting in the growing demand for critical resources such as energy, clean water, food and medicine are taxing our fragile planet. To fulfill these needs we need disruptive technologies. We believe genomic advances offer the world viable, sustainable alternatives.

At Synthetic Genomics Inc. we are creating genomic-driven commercial solutions to revolutionize many industries. We have started by focusing on energy, but we imagine a future where our science could be used to produce a variety of products, from synthetically derived vaccines to prevent human diseases to efficient cost effective ways to create clean drinking water. The world is dependent on science and we’re leading the way in turning novel science into life-changing solutions.

Three possible reactions to the idea of synthetic biology

One reaction to the idea of synthetic biology is to say, “Wow – I’d love to become involved!”

A second reaction is to point out the potential huge risks if the process creates dangerous new life forms, such as a fast-spreading new virus.  One of the audience members in the video lecture asked about this; I wasn’t fully convinced by the answer Andrew Hessel gave.

A third reaction is to say that it’s very unlikely that we will, in fact, be able to improve on nature.  This is similar to a comment made by Mark Wilcox in response to my previous blogpost, “The single biggest problem”.  I wrote that:

rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”

Mark replied:

I actually find it rather arrogant given millions of years of evolution and our relatively short spell of technological development that any of us presume to know what “better than natural” actually is

This last point in turn poses two questions:

  • Is the outcome of millions of years of evolution” the best outcome possible?
  • If not, is there any reliable way to try to do better than evolution?

For a discussion of the imperfect output of evolution, see (for example) my earlier blogpost, “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature“.

It’s also well worth reading the paper by Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg, “The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement” (PDF).  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that paper:

Human beings are a marvel of evolved complexity. Such systems can be difficult to enhance. When we manipulate complex evolved systems, which are poorly understood, our interventions often fail or backfire.

It can appear as if there is a ‘‘wisdom of nature’’ which we ignore at our peril. Sometimes the belief in nature’s wisdom—and corresponding doubts about the prudence of tampering with nature, especially human nature—manifest as diffusely moral objections against enhancement. Such objections may be expressed as intuitions about the superiority of the natural or the troublesomeness of hubris, or as an evaluative bias in favor of the status quo. This chapter explores the extent to which such prudence-derived anti-enhancement sentiments are justified. We develop a heuristic, inspired by the field of evolutionary medicine, for identifying promising human enhancement interventions. The heuristic incorporates the grains of truth contained in ‘‘nature knows best’’ attitudes while providing criteria for the special cases where we have reason to believe that it is feasible for us to improve on nature.

In conclusion, I personally see this emerging field as being full of tremendous promise, though I will seek to ensure that it is approached with great care and thoughtfulness (as well as excitement).


  1. As a footnote, this week’s Economist has a brief article about a very practical application of synthetic biology:

    A genetically engineered bacterium makes a greener plastic

    One of the most promising alternatives to plastics made from oil is polylactic acid (PLA). It is biodegradable, safe enough to be used as food packaging, can be processed like existing thermoplastics into coloured or transparent material and can be manufactured from renewable resources such as maize and sugarcane. Although PLA has been around for decades, it is only in recent years that advances in production techniques, particularly by Cargill, a big American agricultural group, have made it feasible to produce the material commercially. Now a group of researchers led by Lee Sang-yup of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology say they have come up with an even better way to make PLA, using the emerging science of synthetic biology…

    …If the process can be commercialised, the researchers believe it could greatly reduce the cost of making products from PLA. Besides food and drink packaging, PLA is already used to make some other products, such as medical devices. It also has the potential to be used to make biodegradable clothing, furnishings and hygiene products such as nappies— objects which now end up mouldering for decades in rubbish dumps. Moreover, Dr Lee thinks that with further research, genetically engineered bacteria might be capable of making other sorts of plastics and polyesters from renewable resources. Another reason, then, to wonder how much longer the Age of Oil will last.

    Comment by David Wood — 2 December 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  2. David
    Thank you for these comments make me save time and better understand what my poor English allows me to understand that wrong 😦

    Comment by Marc Roux — 7 December 2009 @ 9:20 pm

  3. […] further interesting discussion of this was posted up by a fellow member of the London Futurists […]

    Pingback by Synthetic Biology: The convergence of modern software and DNA « Simon Kenyon Shepard :: justLikeThat. — 6 January 2010 @ 11:15 pm

  4. Synthetic Biology is awesome. I’m wondering what is the best degree to go after if a student wants to get into this suff? Do you think biology, biomedical sciences, or engineering? At the moment i’m aiming for biomedical sciences, but maybe a major in biology would be better??

    Comment by keen101 — 21 May 2010 @ 12:18 am

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