CSHL Synthetic Bio 1.0 – How Can We Responsibly Innovate, and Who is “We?”

Written by: Karmella Haynes

This morning, Megan Palmer, a bioengineer turned policy researcher, lead a discussion that turned the group’s focus outward to community and policy. The overarching question was “how can we responsibly innovate?”


Before we discussed this important question, another key question emerged when Megan showed the following slide to illustrate how in reality a field (in the case of the xkcd comic, the internet landscape) can be unevenly occupied by different stakeholders. This was a timely reminder that after any discussion about what ought to be done, plans must inevitably be executed in the context of a community that has a hierarchy of influence.


xkcd. Online Communities 2. http://xkcd.com/802/

Someone asked where the American research-one East and West coast Universities would be mapped if the landscape represented synthetic biology instead of the internet. This was left as a rhetorical question…it’s certainly discussion/ debate-worthy.

Megan continued with a summary of the 2003 DARPA synthetic biology community meeting, which included founders of the synthetic biology field. One of the conclusions from the executive summary was ‘biological technology poses a danger on par with any past experience.’ The past is a good predictor of what may happen with synthetic biology today. In other words, no zombie apocalypse-level catastrophes, and even more fortunately, the same knowledge can and should be used to develop the technology to address any problems. DARPA highlighted that we’ll continue to need to deal with both existing and emerging risks. We know that we should be prepared to be surprised, and for our predictions to be off-target.

Interestingly, the technology roadmap that was laid out by the participants of the 2003 DARPA meeting predicted that the first Cold Spring Harbor Synthetic Biology course would take place in 2004. It is now 2013. That prediction was about a decade off-target.

Technology is currently outpacing the development of an infrastructure for governance. After Craig Venter’s group announced the creation of the first “synthetic cell” (or, the first living cell that contained a completely machine-synthesized replica of a natural chromosome) the federal government launched a presidential commission on the study of bioethical issues. The commission’s conclusion was that a culture of responsibility, or prudent vigilance, should be created within the synthetic biology research community. But what are the models for implementing this in our day-to-day practices as synthetic biologists?

We explored this question by discussing two cases: iGEM and the Glowing Plant project.

The international Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM) has served as a sandbox for safety and security in synthetic biology. Currently, the internationally distributed iGEM DNA kit excludes dangerous DNA, defined as any sequence that comes from a known pathogen. This definition is challenged by non-pathogenic DNA that might confer virulent behavior (e.g., a “payload delivery” protein, which enables bacteria to cross mammalian cell membranes). Furthermore, biochemically harmless DNA such as GPDH, a harmless and ubiquitous housekeeping gene that is found in all organisms, cannot be shipped via iGEM if it happens to come from mycobacterium tuberculosis.

The crowd-funded Glowing Plant project is an interesting case of marketing-meets-emerging research. One of the Kickstarter donor awards is a “Maker Kit” that contains DNA and Agrobacterium for making your very own glowing plants. What happens when bacteria that act like gene guns for plants (Agrobacterium) and genetically modified weeds (Arabidopsis) are distributed to the general public outside the bounds of academic institutions, and repositories like iGEM, AddGene, or DNASU, and without without material transfer agreement rules? The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restrict dissemination of microbes that can transfer genetic material into other organisms. As of a week ago, Kickstarter no longer allows Glowing Plant’s Maker Kit award.

Just as our discussion began to attack Glowing Plant for being irresponsible (the famous plant image is a time-lapse recording of light that one can’t easily see with the naked eye), an astute participant pointed out the irony in our accusations. Glowing Plant and the synthetic biology community at large may be both guilty of over-selling dreams before they have matured. Indeed, synthetic biology has yet to fine-tune its timing of the “big reveal” to the market place. Let’s hope that our stumbles lead to enlightenment with minimal damage to the discipline along the way.


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