Synthetic Society/Understanding, Perception & Ethics

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The perception sub-group aims to examine how Synthetic Biology is perceived by the general public, policy makers/funding bodies and the researchers themselves. Furthermore, we need to describe the interplay between these groups - how do the descriptions/definitions of Synthetic Biology affect the public's perception and how does their perception affect the researcher's ability to carry on the work?

1/9/06 Meeting

Meeting Notes

Questions arising

  1. What is the public perception of Synthetic Biology
  2. Do people think that Synthetic Biology = Genetic Engineering?
  3. What is the δ of Synthetic Biology on society?
  4. Where has education affected the public perception of a field?
  5. Who are the appraisers of Synthetic Biology (Gates Foundation? VC?)
  6. By what mechanisms does public perception feedback on the research in a field?

Action List

  • Follow up on DARPA funding issues - Ken, Larry
  • Contact Boyce(?) to get perception info. - Ken, Larry
  • Data-mining on public perceptions - Barry, Meagan, Austin
  • Articulate the differences between Synthetic Biology and other related fields - Natalie, Barry, contributions welcome
  • EU response and attitudes to GMO - Ken, Larry

1/25/06 Meeting

Natalie's meeting notes: please edit and improve these!! File:Macintosh HD-Users-nkuldell-Desktop-SyntheticTea 0122506.doc


Synthetic Society/Distinguishing and defining Synthetic Biology

Popular Press Items

Jannuary 17, 2006; The New York Times; Andrew Pollack; Custom-Made Microbes, at Your Service; an introduction, and a set of perceptions and responses

"You write the same software and put it into different computers, and their behavior is quite different," [Caltech's Lingchong] You said. "If we think of a cell as a computer, it's much more complex than the computers we're used to."

For that reason, some scientists say, it might be difficult ever to make biological engineering as predictable as bridge construction.

"There is no such thing as a standard component, because even a standard component works differently depending on the environment," Professor Arnold of Caltech said. "The expectation that you can type in a sequence and can predict what a circuit will do is far from reality and always will be."

The unpredictability could lead to safety risks. What if the novel organisms were somehow to run amok? In addition, the same technology could be used to synthesize known pathogens based on their published DNA sequences.

January 29, 2006; The New York Times Magazine; Jamie Shreeve; Why Revive A Deadly Flu Virus?

[...] Necessary or not, the fact that it had become possible was probably enough to ensure that it would be done. In biology, the direction determined by what is possible has been downward, toward the exploration of ever more reduced levels of complexity. The progression started with the ancients, who first opened up the human body to ponder its organs and their functions. Once microscopes were developed in the 17th century, it became possible to observe the anatomy and behavior of the tissues and cells making up the organs, and with later advances, the proteins that build cells and determine their functions. In the last century we reached the level of the genes that conjure the proteins into being. Only in the last decade has automated sequencing made it possible to peer beneath genes at the individual letters of DNA constituting a complex organism's complete genome, including our own.

This is the bottom of the biological hierarchy, the fundament, where all of life rests upon the bedrock of inert information. Now that we have reached down this far, it becomes possible to use that information to do a U-turn and start back up, not just trying to understand life, but recreating and inventing it - first simple viruses, but soon bacteria and other more complex organisms. The resurrection of the 1918 flu incarnates this turning point. It is not the first virus to be reconstituted from its genetic code. But it is so far the largest, and the meanest, and the only one to be snatched back into existence from a time when we knew so much less and were so much more at its mercy.

The wonder is not that scientists could reconstitute the "damn thing" from its genetic code. The wonder, and for some the fear, is that they could do it with so little effort or expense. Biosupply companies use synthesizing machines to build tiny pieces of DNA to order, using the sequence of letters in the virus's code. When placed in solution, these chemical snippets naturally assemble into longer pieces. With the help of a copying enzyme to fill in any gaps, the DNA molecules stitch themselves together into a complete gene, which can be inserted into a stable little circle of DNA called a plasmid - packaged to go, so to speak. If you have plasmids containing all eight flu gene segments, it is a fairly simple matter to inject them along with some flu proteins into a cell and let nature take its course.

This method of building flu-virus particles from pure code is a clever application of the approach to understanding life called "reverse genetics" - that is, looking at a gene to figure out its function, rather than the other way around. But it is not one requiring some spectacular insight or technological breakthrough. [...]