Wednesday, February 17, 2010

DIY Synthetic Biology - More Than Building a Better Tomato

A few years in his book, A Many-Colored Glass, Freeman Dyson envisioned that the domestication of biotechnology would result in a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture and would give rise to an explosion of new diverse creatures, few of which will be masterpieces, but “all will bring joy to their creators and variety to our flora and fauna.”  Now, college biology students are competing to see who can create new, living tools to address the planet's problems (e.g., bacteria that   The comments and reactions to the article range from go-get-'em to we-are-destroying-ourselves-and-the planet to philosophical:

Sample comment 1

Genetic engineering by experienced professionals is dangerous enough.

Genetic engineering by students is a spectacularly bad idea.

Sample comment 2:

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein remains a compelling story these many years later  because of its description of what it means to be human, and what happens when we overreach. We can't bury our heads in the sand, we can't put the genie back in the bottle, but perhaps we can ask the question, "Should we do it just because we can do it?"

Sample comment 3:

lots of pluses and minuses here - 
Plus: poor countries can home brew their own genetically engineered crops and not have to rely on multinationals and their morally odious "patenting" of genetic  sequences (many of which started as novel genetic strains they freely took from poor countries).

Minus: Al Qaeda can brew its own deadly flu strain. Possibly killing many poor Muslims would not be a problem for Al Qaeda.

Welcome to the age of genetic hacking. Just like computer hacking, except we're the vector, not our computer.

Sample comment 4[I suspect a bioethicist wrote this one]

Any technology can be used to accomplish useful things, or abused to accomplish evil things. The fault lies with personal ethics, not the technology itself. Our students are carefully versed in the implications of biotechnology as well as the applications and limitations.  It is important to expose students to ethical considerations in the use of technology. Our students are far more informed on these issues than the general public.

Regardless of your position on whether or DIY genetic engineering kits are a good idea, this article does provide evidence that the field of bioethics is not dying or irrelevant; if anything, it is now needed more than ever.

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