The Cool and the Concerned...

'The cool' and 'the concerned' -- that was how Zurich-based ethicist Nicola Biller Andorno today aptly characterised the two tribes attending Synthetic Biology 3.0...The cool, in her lexicon, are the synthusiasts, those who regard making synthetic life forms dude, that's like, so cool. The concerned, roughly speaking, is made up of people like us (we've never been accused of being cool). Namely, the dour civil society and social scientists whose gut reaction to making new life forms is -- er.. that's concerning. If the the cool are here in Zurich for the whiz bang science and the concerned are here for discussion of the serious 'issues' then today's agenda had a little bit for everyone.

And it was a long day as a result -- beginning at 8am with a keynote speech by Nobel Prize winner Ham Smith -- Craig Venter's right hand man. Ham seemed as surprised as anyone at the number of earlyrisers hoping for news on his synthetic minimal genome. According to Ham his team really are in the last phases of constructing the synthetic version of Mycoplasma genitalium - its genome currently in 101 different synthetic parts that are midway to being stitched together. In contrast to the bold claims of his boss (and his patent), Ham happily admitted that "we still don't know what a minimal set [of genes] is."

Most significantly however Ham Smith described a new process by which the synthetic genome, once it's built, will be transplanted into a working cell replacing the host genome and making a new fully functioning organism. It's an elegant system in which the full genome of "naked DNA" plus an extra tetracycline-resistant gene is transplanted into an existing cell, making a diploid cell (with 2 different genomes). That host cell then divides into two daughter cells -- each with a different genome and the cell that retains the host genome is killed off with an antibiotic wash. A paper on this in Science is expected later this week. It turns out that acheiving this transplantation is quite a big deal and seemingly removes one of the last technical barriers to having a functioning fully synthetic organism. Once Ham Smith and his colleagues have booted up a working Mycoplasma genitalium they will then strip back the synthetic genes they regard as probably superflous and er... that's life? Curiously, this is NOT the process described in the recent patent application on a minimal genome which referred to an already empty cell known as a ghost cell. When the patent to this process surfaces it will be important to check how widely Venter has drawn his monopoly claims.

The concerned had other things to chew on today -- a panel on security and safety concerns featured social scientist Joyce Tait offering marketing advice to the Synthusiasts on how to improve their public image -- apparently they need to set up ideologically-driven activist groups of their own advocating for Synthetic Biology and that although synthesis is a hard sell to a sceptical public they could talk up the potential for new vaccines to get that public relations karma flowing. Meanwhile biologist Scott Mohr offered a rather more humble call for synthetic biologists to pull their collective heads out of the sand, 'think the unthinkable' and start actively imagining the ways in which their cool science could be misused for evil. "Most of us are reasonably naive," he mused.

Because the session on biosecurity/biosafety was scheduled at the same time as the session on intellectual property, ETC had to go their separate ways. In the IP session, we heard an amazing estimate from Joachim Henkel of Munich's Technical University: though no one’s quite sure (because maybe no one's quite ready to learn the answer) -- somewhere between 20% and 80% of the standard parts in MIT’s Registry could already be patented. It’s a somewhat baffling to think that the deep-end of synbio’s open-source community pool may already be private. So we can expect that when someone starts making money from products using those standard parts, we’ll find out who holds what patents because they’ll no doubt surface.

The day's proceedings ended with an 'ethics' panel in which ETC provided the token civil society presence. 'Ethics' seems to be one of those unhelpful catchall terms better suited to securing academic funding than actually moving forward on real societal challenges. The discussion ranged from a clever presentation on the need for secrecy in synthetic biology (by Laurie Zoloth) to an impassioned and heartfelt plea that Synthetic Biologists follow the example of Joseph Rothblatt, the physicist who left the Manhattan Project to dedicate his life to stopping nuclear weapons (from Malcolm Dando of Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies). As for us -- we suggested that discussions on governance of such powerful technologies neccesitated a more formal venue with much wider transparency and participation than just the converts of cool... A United Nations body perhaps, or a formal, independently facilitated process.

For others, the day ended at a public event in Sternwarte (a place to wait for stars?) on ETH’s downtown campus -- a potentially useful forum for ordinary folk (that is, if you can call folk who attend 2-hour public lectures on complex science in the evenings after work “ordinary”) to get their introduction to synthetic biology. Even without biologist Florianne Koechlin’s helpful translation of the German, we could tell what was being said, as the language of synthetic public acceptance is, apparently, universal: It was easy to pick out “medicines,” “clean energy” and “artemisinin.” And “Gates Foundation,” of course, needs no translation. Beyond hearing the blue-sky (or is that pi in the sky?) prospects for synthetic biology, we were told how utterly stupid ordinary folk can be – did you know, for example, that half the people surveyed thought that tomatoes didn’t contain genes? Florianne knew because, as she told us, she has been hearing that statistic for the better half of a decade – it’s used to demonstrate how badly the public needs to be “educated” about science -- A bit paternalist perhaps... or maybe we're just not cool enough?

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