Synthetic Biology, Drew Endy, and the Building of a Better Human from the Ground Up

Posted by Jesse Reynolds October 1, 2009
Biopolitical Times
Cartoon from The New Yorker

Synthetic biology (or "SynBio") is dramatic in its method, promise, and potential peril. The emerging field proposes to create new genes, genomes, and even entire life forms from scratch using stripped-down biological building blocks. Leading figures in the SynBio world speak of admirable goals such as sustainable energy without greenhouse gases and drugs for malaria.

The current issue of the The New Yorker has a feature on SynBio gives plenty of ink to these boosters. Drew Endy, in particular, is interviewed at length. Endy, a Stanford Professor of Bioengineering, has been the SynBio figure who most directly addresses its considerable social and safety risks. But his message is strange and slightly contradictory. On the one hand, he concedes that SynBio has enormous powers, including the potential to destroy life as we know it. Michael Specter writes:

I asked Endy why he thought so many people seem to be repelled by the idea of constructing new forms of life. “Because it’s scary as hell,” he said. “It’s the coolest platform science has ever produced, but the questions it raises are the hardest to answer.”...

“We are talking about things that have never been done before,” Endy said. “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre-farm. We would just be gone. ”
At the same time, he seems rather flippant about these consequences:
“If you build a bridge and it falls down, you are not going to be permitted to design bridges ever again,” Endy said. “But that doesn’t mean we should never build a new bridge. There we have accepted the fact that risks are inevitable.” He believes the same should be true of engineering biology.
Furthermore, Endy admits for the first time (to my knowledge) that among the goals of the SynBiologists is a desire to alter, if not entirely recreate, humans:
Synthetic biologists are convinced that, with enough knowledge, they will be able to write programs to control those genetic components, programs that would let them not only alter nature but guide human evolution as well....

“What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?” Drew Endy asked...

Endy stopped long enough for me to digest the fact that he was talking about building our own children. “If you look at human beings as we are today, one would have to ask how much of our own design is constrained by the fact that we have to be able to reproduce,” he said. In fact, those constraints are significant. In theory, at least, designing our own offspring could make those constraints disappear....

“These are powerful choices. Think about what happens when you really can print the genome of your offspring. You could start with your own sequence, of course, and mash it up with your partner, or as many partners as you like. Because computers won’t care. And, if you wanted evolution, you can include random number generators.”

Previously on Biopolitical Times: