Caruso and Darnovsky on Synthetic Biology

Posted by Jesse Reynolds November 17, 2008
Biopolitical Times
The ETC Group's portrayal of synthetic biology

If you are doing some crash preparation to attend tonight's debate in San Francisco on synthetic biology with Drew Endy and Jim Thomas, here are two resources to help bring you up to speed.

Denise Caruso published a lengthy piece at Science Progress. There, she asks tough but reasonable questions about the lack of oversight of the emerging field, and offers a stepwise strategy to address them.

While there may be encyclopedic knowledge of the mechanics of electronic components and their interactions, clearly there remain far more questions than answers about the biological mechanisms that govern living organisms.

In fact, in many respects scientists know less today about these mechanisms than they did even just five years ago. As the NHGRI [.S. National Human Genome Research Institute] said at the release of the ENCODE [Encyclopedia of DNA Elements] report, scientists are now challenged “to rethink some long-held views” about genetic components and what they do. Given this scarcity of knowledge, can synthetic biologists truly claim to know enough about living, reproducing biological systems to design artificial organisms—and, more important, to reliably predict their behavior and effects once they have been released? Are the parallels they draw between electronic components and biological parts accurate, or even relevant?...

Rarely, if ever, has scientific discovery been so tightly coupled with proprietary commercial development, with so little time set aside for reflection and testing, so little consideration of results in the context of broader understanding, and so little independent review of research findings in anticipation of commercial release.

And on Friday, CGS's Marcy Darnovsky discussed the field with Prof. Ignacio Chapela of UC Berkeley on KPFA radio's Terra Verde show. You can download an MP3 of the show here, or stream it at KPFA's site.