Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Cat’s Cradle in a Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the Brave New World

During the ITA workshop in January, Desmond Lun and I had the following exchange.

Me: So what are you doing these days? Are you a post doc?
Desmond: Actually, I’m at the Broad Institute.
Me: What’s the Broad Institute?

By the time I started looking for internships, I knew what the Broad Institute was and sent Desmond my resume. I have been at the Broad now for two months, and Desmond and I work in the same group. It helps working with someone here who hails from the same research community, and our conversations span topics that include information theory and biology research.

I had a taste of the future of biology research during lunch when Desmond described his project with George Church’s lab. The goal of the project is to study ways to use biology to produce renewable fuel sources. One fuel source is ethanol, and there is a well-known biological recipe to produce it. Add yeast to a sugar solution. Mix. Let it ferment.

The approach Desmond described was a little different. It turns out one can modify the E. coli genome and use the modified E. coli to produce ethanol. Driven by this success, there is an effort to see if alkanes or other fuels can be created by hacking the genome. Indeed, some start-ups are trying to capitalize on this idea.

The technology that enables such genome hacking falls into the field of synthetic biology. What is synthetic biology? The answer can vary depending on who answers, but to my understanding, synthetic biology is the study of how to design and fabricate living systems that do not exist in nature. In addition to adding and removing genes from a genome, Desmond said there exist techniques that allow one to increase the mutation rate of certain organisms. Once enough mutations accrue over the population, a researcher can then create conditions that select the mutations most suited to a task of interest. This may be the only truly parallel implementation of a genetic algorithm.

Of course, such technology also generates concern. The ETC Group is a public watch-dog for synthetic biology. They have been vocal in challenging Craig Venter’s attempt to patent synthetic life and oppose the idea of scientists creating synthetic life without regulations. “Playing God in the Galapagos,” the title of one of their publications, reflects this position.

These concerns are also in the public consciousness. Desmond mentioned a recent online poll asking about such technologies. The response choices ranged from complete opposition to regulations to complete opposition to the research. How do scientists feel? It turns out Church’s lab took a similar poll. Surprisingly, the group was in favor of more regulations.

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