Synthetic biology at SciBarCamp

March 17th, 2008

Tim’s away.
The blog is ours!
Now I can finally post about SciBarCamp, held last weekend in Toronto, and the most interesting meeting I’ve attended this millenium. Amongst its many highlights were two talks by Andrew Hessel. The first was about synthetic biology. Andrew helps run iGEM, which every year hands out “BioBricks” to high school and undergrad students around the world, and sees who can build the best genetic machines. Stunning successes have included a group of kids from Edinburgh who created a bacterium that changes the acidity of water, but only if there’s arsenic present. This enables individual wells to be tested at a cost of dimes instead of tens of dollars. (For a sickening account of why this is significant, click here, or here.) Another group invented a glowing bacterium which, I think, has a variety of computational and artistic applications.

The synthetic biology talk was part of a debate with Jim Thomas from etc, a group that monitors technology from a social justice perspective. Jim began by engendering sympathy for the Luddites, reminding us that in 1812, 14 Luddites were hanged near his alma mater in York, England. Before smashing things, Luddites would sometimes ask the people “is this harmful for the common good?”, and that’s the question Jim asked of synthetic biology. He didn’t exactly say yes, but he raised a number of concerns – security, safety, economic disruption, and concentration of corporate power. The only one which I really bought into was security; kids, as we know, do not use their creativity and hacking skills exclusively for good, and neither do adults. Part of Jim’s evidence was the case of Eckard Wimmer from Stony Brook, who built the polio virus from mail-order parts, just to show it could be done. The session ended before Andrew could respond.

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