Tuesday, August 5, 2014

#218 / Synthetic Biology

Do you think that maybe natural biology isn't good enough? How about replacing it with "synthetic biology?" Here is a link to an exceptionally easy to understand video on synthetic biology, referenced in a recent article by an apparent supporter of synthetic biology, Nathanael Johnson. Johnson writes for Grist, a "beacon in the smog," and he calls synthetic biology "The next front in the GMO war." 

According to the video, synthetic biology is less about "biology" than it is about "engineering." The idea is that genetic engineers will simply be able to "print" out new DNA, according to their own engineering specifications. That synthetic DNA can then be placed into an already living cell, and off we go!

It appears that great advances are sure to be right around the corner, as human engineers step up their game and replace the inadequate "natural biology" brought into existence by the Creator of the Natural World. For those uncomfortable with that "Creator" concept, it would be possible to understand what's in store by simply dropping out the "Creator" part of this sentence, and to say that synthetic biology is on the road to replacing the inadequate Natural World. 

Here's one final question: Does anyone need a refresher course on the "Precautionary Principle?"

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1 comment:

  1. In this post you sarcastically put the words "replacing the inadequate Natural World" in the mouths of straw-men human engineers. This has nothing to do with the motivations of synthetic biology, which is just a term for programmable genetic engineering. It promises to lead to an inexpensive way to synthesize artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug, a microbe that can detect environmental pollutants such as arsenic [2, 3], other medicines like vaccines, and carbon-neutral biofuel [4]. This is done, not by replacing anything inadequate, but by building something new.

    I think you're the one in need of a refresher course on the Precautionary Principle, Gary! It's not a license to petulantly dismiss a new technology out of ignorance and fear. Yes, new technology can be dangerous. But risk assessment is a cost-benefit analysis. In the case of synthetic biology and its profound applications for human health and the environment, *lacking* this new technology is a lot more dangerous than *having* it!

    The Precautionary Principle is satisfied when the scientific consensus is that an action or policy is not harmful. But you're never satisfied because of ideology. The Precautionary Principle also applies only when there is a *reason* to suspect some risk of causing harm. There are legitimate concerns regarding synthetic biology, but this crap about the adequacy of the natural world is not one of them.

    Your particular brand of armchair risk assessment seems driven awry by negative emotions and is clearly missing the relevant facts. I can't help but wonder what threat synthetic biology poses to you? I'm not talking about your pet mythology about the Creator of the Natural World. Forget that. What tangible threat do you think synthetic biology poses for you, personally?

    I'm calling your bluff. This post of yours is rank hypocrisy. You indulge in anti-science only when convenient. When you get strep throat, do you take antibiotics? If diabetic, would you take insulin produced by transgenic yeast [5]? If HIV+, would you take antiretroviral drugs? If diagnosed with a treatable cancer, would you undergo chemotherapy? Of course you would. Not because you think the natural world is "inadequate". Because you want to live.

    Rejecting medicine would be a real threat to your health. But in a blog post on the Internet, it's easy preach Neo-Luddism and feel like you've gotten away with it. I wont let you get away with it, and neither should you.

    1. http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/04/11/launch-of-antimalarial-drug-a-triumph-for-uc-berkeley-synthetic-biology/
    2. http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/11/06/2009/synthetic-biology-competition.html
    3. http://www.echromi.com/
    4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD5uNAMbDaQ
    5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3545904


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