Synthetic Biology: Why Not Pursuing Crazy Biotech Is Dangerous

We are at a biological turning point: We can invent organisms to make our drugs and fuel, even recode our DNA. It's easy to run away screaming, but author Michael Specter says we have to quit whining and face it.

Specter, who covers the science beat for The New Yorker, is pissed off. Forces on both the left and right have been coming down on good clean science like never before. Yes, this "denialism," as he calls it, comes from both sides. People on the left might think of it as Bush-flavored Intelligent Design agendas and bans on stem-cell research, while those on the right would recognize liberal whining about vaccinations and genetically modified food. It's all of these factions, and plenty more.

And in his new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, Specter demonstrates that ignorance is death.

For our discussion—fitting the theme of This Cyborg Life—we singled out synthetic biology, a pursuit, as Specter describes it, that "by combining elements of engineering, chemistry, computer science and molecular biology, seeks nothing less than to assemble the biological tools necessary to redesign the living world." Here's an edited version of our discussion:

So we're talking about, synthetic biology, the ability to take cells or small organisms and turn them into machines?

Yeah, that's essentially where building machines, unbelievably complex ones, that will eventually be able to do whatever we want, out of cells and chemicals.

Yeah, so we just mix some chemicals in a pot and suddenly we got a car manufacturer?

Well, it's a little more complicated than that, but that's the direction we're moving in—you put some chemicals together and you get an organism, and then you get a more complex organism, and you get organisms that'll do things, and you can get drugs, or chemicals, or plastics or fuel... These [scientists] are trying to take basic sugars, basic chemicals, and make it so they can digest carbon (which is kind of exciting though we're not there yet) or just diesel fuels, plain fuel, that doesn't emit any sort of greenhouse gasses. That has happened in small scales—we're there. It's just a question of scaling.

So why is this kind of low-level synthetic approach better doing than, say, the guys making fuel from algae?

I think the hope is that this will be cheaper and more stable. I don't know that it's better. I'm sort of agnostic on that, I think you'd rather have a lot of different approaches that are kind of greenhouse gas neutral. And whatever works, you'll use. And you know we're not gonna have one source of energy, we're gonna have a bunch. We're gonna have wind, we're gonna have solar, we're gonna have chemicals.

When we look at the malaria drug [one of the first products that can be manufactured through synthetic biology—and a project funded by the Gates Foundation], they are going to be able to make all the drug that is needed in the world in a couple of vats. One of the reasons that's exciting is because it's a stable, easy way to regulate the manufacturing, to make sure that it's done properly. We have a big problem with malaria medicine because it's misused, it's taken the wrong way, it's counterfeit—and this is a way of regulating it. I think we'll see that with energy sources too. It'll be solid.

In the book, you refer to the opening of the Will Smith film I Am Legend, when doctors say they've harnessed the measles virus and turned it into a cancer killer, a mutant virus that eventually turns everybody into zombies. But two years after the movie comes out, real doctors from the Mayo clinic say that they're using measles strains as a real cancer treatment, in real life.

The point I'm trying to make is, these things are a little scary. Anything that powerful has to have a downside. And we need to know what the downside is, we need to talk about the downside. And we need to acknowledge it exists and say to ourselves—and sometimes we won't agree—but say to ourselves, "Gee, you know what, the potential benefits outweigh the risks." Sometimes we won't think that. But I do believe that lots of times, given the information, we would think that way.

We're on the verge of creating our own viruses that go into the body—I mean, is that right?—they go into the body and they do something good rather than bad.

Yeah, but the thing is, that has a bad connotation but it ought not to. There's a guy named Eckhard Wimmer who created a fake version of the polio virus, and lots of people screamed, because why would you do that? I even trashed him in an article once and I was wrong and so were those people. What he had been trying to do was to make synthetic vaccines. In order to make totally synthetic, rapidly reproducible vaccines, you need to understand the viruses. Wouldn't it be great if, for H1N1, instead of growing tons of this stuff in eggs in Pennsylvania, we could just gear up instantly, making in factories all around this country, so that we could have millions of doses in two weeks? That's not a pipe dream; that can happen.

Who says whether this kind of research happens or not? Who pounds the gavel?

If you live in America, it'd be some sort of Democratic process. We need to have some sort of regulatory framework. Who approves a new drug? It isn't just a pharmaceutical company that says, "Hey, I've gotta drug, let's put it out there." No, there are tons of hoops to jump through, and we need to have some hoops. And we need to make those hoops reasonable so that they're not so ridiculous that no one bothers to try to jump through them but not so easy that we're endangering our citizens.

But the scientific progress will probably continue regardless of whether there's a discussion or a regulatory framework?

I've never seen anything in the history of our planet where human progress has stopped. People have gotten in the way, people have slowed things down, but yeah it continues. People do the work. And so I think we kind of need to get on board and harness that work. Some people said, "We need to stop some things," but I don't think that can happen. I don't think we can turn information back.

Right. In your book, you mention that Bill Joy's argument was to just put a padlock on certain venues.

Yeah, and I understand why he said that, I just don't think it's realistic. I don't think that's the way the human animal is built or has ever acted.

The point I think that you make in the book is that, if American science infrastructure bans certain researches, it's not gonna stop people who are outside America from doing the research, and maybe won't stop people who we definitely don't want to be doing this research.

It's true. Look at the stem cell ban. People went elsewhere to do it. It set us back, it set the world back. But it isn't like it stopped. That's a good thing, but it could be a bad thing. If we're gonna do sort of high-end synthetic biology, and be creating all sorts of exciting but theoretically scary things, let's do it in this country. Let's not have it done in some place with no regulatory system.

What's the worst thing that could happen here?

You mean like in terms of?

I mean in terms of messing around with this particular biological technology.

Look, the worst thing that can happen when you mix genes around is you can let something loose that you can't bring back that destroys, you know, fill in the blank. Humans? Animals? Life? That is the worst thing. That is the doomsday scenario and it... it can happen, these things can happen.

We have had agricultural biotechnology for 35 years and we've planted two billion acres. And people still talk about how it's untried and untested. It isn't untried. It isn't untested. It doesn't make people sick. It doesn't mean there aren't problems with it. But to go right to the idea that the worst thing will happen, it's crazy. There's always a worst case scenario. We don't need to assume it. We need to think about it.

And then obviously the upside, this is the point of the book, the upside far outweighs the downside.

Yeah, you know, the worst case scenario is something goes awry and destroys the universe. OK, that's the worst case scenario, and it's a pretty remote likelihood.

Now, a pretty good likelihood is, if we continue living the way we live, my kid, who's 16 years old, maybe she won't live a whole life because people are dying of skin cancer like crazy in 50 years. This isn't so long from now. We have really severe problems we need to address instantly. And those are the potential benefits of this research. We don't talk about that very much. We need to do the work and find out and make our decisions and not decide beforehand that it makes no sense.

If this has piqued your interest, or if you're just tired of people bitching about stem-cell research, genetically altered foods or the alleged evil that lurks in vaccinations, be sure to pick up Michael Specter's amazing book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, and meanwhile have a look at his most recent piece on synthetic biology in The New Yorker. Thanks Michael!

This week, Gizmodo is exploring the enhanced human future in a segment we call This Cyborg Life. It's about what happens when we treat our body less as a sacred object and more as what it is: Nature's ultimate machine.

Special thanks to Kyle the Intern for transcribing the interview