Parting with parts

"I think this is going to become the foundational technology of the 21st century" - that was the triumphant message with which Tom Knight of MIT brought Synthetic Biology 3.0 to an end today. An engineering generalist who moved from artificial intelligence to artificial life, it was Knight who, along with Drew Endy, developed the concept of biobricks -- snap-together genetic parts from which to assemble Lego-like genes.

If there was to be established, as one ethicist suggests, a Jedi priesthood of the synthusiasts, Tom Knight would certainly be among the spiritual elders. Today he was reminding his followers of the SynBio gospel: "Biology is modular,"he declared, elucidating a central tenet of the synbio belief system. "We can discover nature's modular designs, modify them and use them.. we can create new modular designs.. make them more modular, force them to behave as modules."

And then there's abstraction. Knight suggests that only by breaking down the complexity of nature into abstracted parts (cells, genes, ribosomes, promoters,etc.) is re-engineering nature possible. By turning the incomprehensible thousands or millions of elements in a genome into a smaller set of slightly more comprehensible (if abstract) parts. biological engineers can start to focus on distinct sections of the puzzle. "We don't have to cope with complexity that we're not forced to cope with."

That in itself is a telling statement on more than one level.

Scientists tend to narrowly practice some specialised part of their discipline (the part understandable to them) while choosing not to cope with the complexity of the society into which their technology will be introduced. But the real world problem is that the complexity has to be addressed somehow.

And that's perhaps been a tension here at Syn Bio 3.0 -- Most of the programme has been for the engineers ('the cool') who would rather focus down and get something practical achieved -- as Tom Knight described it: "We are about creating sytems that are different from what occurs in the natural world." For them discussion about the wider complexity of social impacts (by 'the concerned') threatens to distract from the task at hand. George Church expressed this yesterday when he said that he wouldn't be a very good engineer if he spent all his time trying to do societal outreach. More argument for inviting in (and listening to) civil society to share the load.

On a lighter note: our not very scientific poster disappeared today (we hope it went to a happy home). We were told that some people had posted notes requesting copies and those unfortunately disappeared with the poster. We'll have it in downloadable format on our website in the next couple of days -- meanwhile, you can catch a photo of it at Nature's blog here.

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