Remember Michael Crichton’s science fiction thriller Prey (2002)? In which the bad guys created swarms of nanorobots, and the good guy lost his wife (but saved his kids) in his struggle to counter the swarms that left their secret lab environment somewhere in the Nevada desert to start replicating in a Darwinian fashion and thus potentially threatening to take over the earth. The book had no special literary qualities, but it was efficiently narrated, and too close to real biology to be dismissed as pure fiction.
Technology Review had a good report on the progress of the Crichtonian future made real almost two years ago. (See also the MIT-Harvard based Synthetic Biology working group.) Now The Economist too is catching up with the events. A Special Report in last week’s issue (2-8 September) gives an overview of how far the new science and technology of synthetic biology has come (see here and here). As the leader writer (alas, behind paywall) says, it is considered impolite among biologists to mention the ‘F’ word (‘F’ for Frankenstein, of course :-). Yet, we are not that far away any more, and historians of biology and medicine and biotech STS scholars should begin to prepare for the much needed reflexive work that needs to be done the very day after the reports announcing that the first artificial life form has been created.
The Special Report brings up one very interesting aspect about the new synthetic biology/artificial life field which I haven’t thought about before, viz., the similarity between the history of computer technology and the possible future history of synthetic biology.
We usually think about biomedicine and biotechnology as a Big Science/Big Pharma/Big Agro business thing; biology in the hands of Empire as it were. But to a growing extent biomedicine and biotechnology is beginning to germinate (sic!) in the garages. The number of biotech hobbyists is not overwhelming yet, but the large numbers of students graduating from universities with degrees in the new technologies is likely to increase the ranks of homegrown bio-hackers. And in the same way as there were electronic companies that sold components for computer hackers in the 1970 and 1980s, there are now a growing number of bio-suppliers that provide all the necessary utensils and reagents for garage biotech. Websites like DNAhack.com help you make your own DNA.
Bioterrorism is one outcome of this scenario of course. But another outcome is an exponential increase in the number of benign and creative biohackers who want to change the world for the better. Bioartists like Oron Catts are already building their own tissue culture labs. The democratic potential is enormous (biology and medicine in the hands of the Multitude as it were), while the ethical issues have not really reached the media yet (although it has been an issue among bioethicists for a while).