Tag Archives: synthetic biology

Internship at Science and Technology Innovation Program in Washington, DC

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is advertizing for a media-focused intern for Spring 2013. From the Dec. 12, 2012 notice,

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is currently seeking a media-focused intern for Spring 2013. The mission of STIP is to explore the scientific and technological frontier, stimulating discovery and bringing new tools to bear on public policy challenges that emerge as science advances.

Specific project areas include: nanotechnology, synthetic biology, Do-It-Yourself biology, the use of social media in disaster response, serious games, geoengineering, and additive manufacturing. Interns will work closely with a small, interdisciplinary team.

  • Applicants should be a graduate or undergraduate student with a background or strong interest in journalism, science/technology policy, public policy and/or policy analysis.
  • Solid reporting, writing and computer skills are a must. Experience with video/audio editing and new media is strongly desired.
  • Responsibilities include assisting with the website/social media, writing and editing, helping produce and edit short-form videos, staffing events and other duties as assigned.
  • Applicants should be creative, ready to engage in a wide variety of tasks and able to work independently and with a team in a fast-paced environment.
  • The internship is expected to last for 3-5 months at 15-20 hours per week. Scheduling is flexible.
  • Please include 2-3 writing samples/clips and links to any video/documentary work.
  • Compensation may be available.

To apply, please submit a cover letter, resume, and brief writing sample to [email protected] with SPRING 2013 INTERN in the subject line.

There doesn’t seem to be any additional information about the internship on the Wilson Center but you can check for yourself here. Good luck!

Synthetic biology and global ocean sampling talk by J. Craig Venter in Vancouver

J. Craig Venter will be in Vancouver (Canada) Tuesday, May 3, 2011 (7:30 pm at The Vogue Theatre) to talk about the construction of the first synthetic cell and the global ocean sampling expedition, according to the advertisement in The Georgia Straight weekly newspaper, March 3 – 10, 2011. The talk is being presented by the Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies (PWIAS). Seating is free but you must reserve a ticket here.

I did try to get more information about the event but the PWIAS website (www.pwias.ubc.ca) does not have a notice let alone more details. I did find a notice at the Genome BC website about the event but they don’t have any substantive details

Venter made international news with his work on a synthetic cell in Spring 2010 (there are brief comments about it in my May 24, 2010 posting) so bringing him to Vancouver is quite the coup. As for the global ocean sampling expedition, Venter recently completed a 2009-2010 journey to the seas in Europe. From the JCVI (J. Craig Venter Institute)webpage describing what was then a forthcoming expedition,

From there she sails for England and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory where the crew and scientists will have a short stay with their collaborators there. From the UK waters the boat will then head to Stockholm for a summer and early fall of sampling and collaboration with scientists in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, and other Baltic countries. After what Dr. Venter and team hope will be a fruitful sampling year, the Sorcerer II will head for Spain and Italy for winter 2009. In 2010 the Sorcerer will begin sampling in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Check back for more updates on the progress of the Sorcerer II.

The purpose for the journey?

Since 2003 scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have been on a quest to unlock the secrets of the oceans by sampling, sequencing and analyzing the DNA of the microorganisms living in these waters. While this world is invisible to us, its importance is immeasurable. The microbes in the sea, land, and air sustain our life on Earth. This is why Dr. Venter and his team have been on their voyage of microbial discovery.

Coincidentally and for a somewhat different approach to the oceans and seas, there’s the 2nd International Marine Conservation Congress taking place May 14 – 18, 2011 in Victoria, BC.

According to the Genome BC notice, Venter’s May 3, 2011 talk is scheduled for 7:30 – 10:30 pm.

Thinking about nanotechnology, synthetic biology, body hacking, corporate responsibility, and zombies

In the wake of Craig Venter’s announcement (last week) of the creation of a synthetic organism (or most of one), Barack Obama, US President, has requested a special study (click here to see the letter to Dr. Amy Gutmann of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues). From Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog (May 26, 2010) posting,

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House. But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

The new “synthetic biology” epitomized by the Venter Institute’s work – in essence the ability to design new genetic code on computers and then “download” it into living organisms – heralds a new era of potentially transformative technology innovation. As if to underline this, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will be hearing testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential on May 27th – just days after last week’s announcement.

Andrew goes on to suggest while the ethical issues are very important that safety issues should not be shortchanged,

The ethics in particular surrounding synthetic biology are far from clear; the ability to custom-design the genetic code that resides in and defines all living organisms challenges our very notions of what is right and what is acceptable. Which is no doubt why President Obama wasted no time in charging the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the technology.

But in placing ethics so high up the agenda, my fear is that more immediate safety issues might end up being overlooked.

Hilary Sutcliffe in an opinion piece for ethicalcorp.com (writing to promote her organization’s [MATTER] Corporate responsibility and emerging technologies conference on June 4, 2010) suggests this,

Though currently most of the attention is focused on the scientists exploring synthetic biology in universities, this will also include the companies commercialising these technologies.

In addition, many organisations may soon have to consider if and how they use the applications developed using these new technologies in their own search for sustainability.

This is definitely an issue for the ‘Futures’ area of your CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategy, but there is a new ‘ology’ which is being used in products already on the market which may need to be moved up your priority list – ‘Nanotechnology’ or (‘nanotechnologies’ to be precise) – nano for short.

What I’m doing here is drawing together synthetic biology, nanotechnology, safety, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). What follows is an example of a company that apparently embraced CSR.

In the wake of BP’s (British Petroleum) disastrous handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notion of corporate social responsibility and  ethics and safety issues being considered and discussed seriously seems unlikely. Sure, there are some smaller companies that act on on those values but those are the values of an owner and are not often seen in action in a larger corporate entity and certainly not in a multinational enterprise such as BP.

Spinwatch offers an intriguing perspective on corporate social responsibility in an article by Tom Borelli,

To demonstrate “responsibility”, BP spent huge sums of money on an advertising campaign promoting the notion that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide is to blame for global warming and its investment in renewable energy was proof the company was seeking a future that was “beyond petroleum”.

The message was clear: oil is bad for society and BP is leading the way in alternative energy.

The BP experience shows there are serious consequences when companies demagogue against its core business. …

… “If you drew up a list of companies that Americans are most disappointed in, BP would definitely feature,” said James Hoopes, professor of business ethics at Babson College, Massachusetts.

Ironically, BP’s experience delivered the exact opposite of CSR’s promise: the company’s reputation was ruined, the company is the target of government agency investigations and Congressional hearings and its stock price lags far behind its competitors and the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of BP’s failures, many critics blamed corporate greed – not CSR – as the cause. They believed the profit motive forced the company to skimp on basic pipeline maintenance and worker safety.

This conclusion is far from the truth. If profit were its only goal, BP would define its role in society as a company that safely producing oil while providing jobs and energy for the economy.

This article was written in 2006 and presents a view that would never have occurred to me. I find Borelli’s approach puzzling as it seems weirdly naïve. He seems to be unaware that large companies can have competing interests and while one part of an enterprise may be pursuing genuine corporate social responsibility another part of the enterprise may be pursuing goals that are antithetical to that purpose. Another possibility is that the company was cynically pursing corporate social responsibility in the hope that it would mitigate any backlash in the event of a major accident.

Getting back to where this started, I think that nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies require all of the approaches to  ethics, safety rules, corporate social responsibility, regulatory frameworks, and more that we have and can dream up including this from Andrew (from May 26, 2010 posting),

Rather, scientists, policy makers and developers urgently need to consider how synthetic biology might legitimately lead to people and the environment being endangered, and how this is best avoided.

What we need is a science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result. Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.

Synthetic biology is still too young to second-guess whether artificial microbes will present new risks; whether bio-terror or bio-error will result in harmful new pathogens; or whether blinkered short-cuts will precipitate catastrophic failure. But the sheer momentum and audacity of the technology will inevitably lead to new and unusual risks emerging.

And this is precisely why the safety dialogue needs to be grounded in science now, before it becomes entrenched in speculation.

You can read more about the science behind Venter’s work in this May 22, 2010 posting by Andrew and Gregor Wolbring provides an excellent roundup of the commentary on Venter’s latest achievement.

I agree we need the discussion but grounding the safety dialogue in science won’t serve as a prophylactic treatment for public panic. I believe that there is always an underlying anxiety about science, technology, and our place in the grand scheme of things. This anxiety is played out in various horror scenarios. I don’t think it’s an accident that interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies is so high these days.

I had a minor epiphany—a reminder of sorts—the other night watching Zombiemania ( you can read a review of this Canadian documentary here) when I heard the pioneers,  afficionados and experts comment on the political and social implications of zombie movies (full disclosure: I’m squeamish  so I had to miss parts of the documentary).This fear of losing control over nature and destroying the natural order (reversing death as zombies and vampires do) and the worry over the consequences of augmenting ourselves (werewolves, zombies and vampires are stronger than ordinary humans who become their prey) is profound.

Venter’s feat with the bacterium may or may not set off a public panic but there is no question in my mind that at least one will occur as synthetic biology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology take us closer to real life synthetic and transgenic organisms, androids and robots (artificial humans), and cyborgs (body hackers who integrate machines into their bodies).

Let’s proceed with the discussions about safety, ethics, etc. on the assumption that there will be a public panic. Let’s make another assumption, the public panic will be set off by something unexpected. For the final assumption, a public panic may be just what we need. That final comment has been occasioned by Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’ (Wikipedia essay here). While the notion is grounded in economics, it has a remarkably useful application as a means of understanding social behaviour.

The Scientist opens its archives for a limited period of time

I received an email from The Scientist magazine website alerting me to their special open access at almost the same time I came across a posting by Dave Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis about a recent synbio and the FBI article in the very same magazine.

The original article by Jill Frommer titled, SYNTHETIC BIO MEET “Fbio”; You may soon be visited by an FBI agent, or a scientist acting on behalf of one. Here’s why, provides an overview of the current situation with regard to law enforcement agencies and practitioners in the life sciences field (note: The Scientist is primarily a life sciences magazine).

From Dave’s posting,

The Scientist has a long, detailed article outlining the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s relationship with the biological sciences community. Unfortunately, recent cases such as those of Thomas Butler and Steve Kurtz have established a more adversarial relationship between the FBI and the biological sciences than would be beneficial – for both sides. …

I think some history could help understand why there are challenges in this area, where the nuclear science/weapons research areas didn’t quite have the combination of ambivalence and distrust that come through in the Scientist piece.

It’s well worth looking at both pieces, now especially if you are loathe to register at The Scientist for the privilege of reading an article. Note: I registered a while back and they send a monthly notice about the latest issue but have never bothered me otherwise.

Synthetic biology: commercialization, Canadian farmers, and public discourse

You may see synthetic biology (or more properly a synthetic organism) referred to as ‘Synthia’. The term was coined (or, for some word play, created) by the ETC Group as they note in their May 20, 2010 news release about J. Craig Venter’s latest accomplishment (noted on this blog here and here),

The construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.

Clearly the ETC Group, which is based in Canada, has been gearing up for a campaign. It’ll be interesting to note whether or not they are successful at making ‘Synthia’ stick. I gather the group was able to capitalize on ‘frankenfoods’ for the campaign on genetically modified foods but someone else coined that phrase for them. (You can read about who coined the phrase in Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s book, Frankenstein; a cultural history.)

The advantage with ‘frankenfoods’ is the reference to an internationally recognized cultural icon, Frankenstein, and all of the associations that naturally follow. With ‘Synthia’, the ETC Group will have to build (link? graft?) the references to/onto the term.

I shouldn’t forget that the ETC Group does make an important point with this,

The team behind today’s announcement, led by controversial scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, is associated with a private company, Synthetic Genomics Inc, bankrolled by the US government and energy behemoths BP and Exxon. Synthetic Genomics recently announced a $600 million research and investment deal with Exxon Mobil in addition to a 2007 investment from BP for an undisclosed amount. Venter, who led the private sector part of the human genome project ten years ago, has already applied for patents related to Synthia’s technology.

In a possibly related (to the ETC Group) statement, the National Farmers Union (NFU) had this to say (from the May 22, 2010 news item on CBC News),

The National Farmers Union says the development of a synthetic cell could lead to worrisome, long-term consequences.

“This new technology raises serious concerns about who controls it, what it will be used for, and its potential impact,” [Terry] Boehm [president, NFU] said.

There are two things I want to note. First, the concerns raised by the ETC Group, the NFU, and others in Canada and across the globe are important and require discussion. Second, all of the parties involved business interests, civil society groups, scientists, government agencies, etc. work independently and together (formally and informally) to promote their interests.

In a related note: In a May 23, 2010 CBC news item (published on Sunday during a long weekend),

The government is looking for ways to monitor online chatter about political issues and correct what it perceives as misinformation.

The move started recently with a pilot project on the East Coast seal hunt. A Toronto-based company called Social Media Group has been hired to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has paid the firm $75,000 “to monitor social activity and help identify … areas where misinformation is being presented and repeated as fact,” Simone MacAndrew, a department spokesperson, said in an email.

The firm alerts the government to questionable online comments and then employees in Foreign Affairs or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who have recently been trained in online posting, point the authors to information the government considers more accurate.

It appears to be just the beginning. [emphases mine]

(Digression alert! Does this mean I’ll be able to easily get more information about nanotechnology research in Canada, about the national institute, about nanomaterials, about proposed regulatory frameworks, etc.?)

I have to admit to being suspicious about this ‘information initiative’ when the announcement appears to have been made in an email during a holiday weekend. As well, it seems a bit schizoid given the government’s ban (I’ve commented about that here) on direct communication between journalists and scientists working for Environment Canada. So, the government will contact us if they think we have it wrong but a journalist can’t directly approach one of their scientists to ask a question.

Returning to my main focus, the impact that all these groups with their interests, by turns competitive and collegial, will have on the synthetic biology debate is impossible to evaluate at this time. It does seem that much of the framing for the discussion has been predetermined by various interest groups while the rest of us have remained in relative ignorance. I think the ‘pre-framing’ is inevitable given that most of us would not be interested in engaging in a discussion about developments which were largely theoretical, until recently.

For those who are interested in learning about the science and the debates, check out the Oscillator here. She notes that we’ve had some parts of this discussion as early as the 19th century,

My ScienceBlogs colleague PZ Myers compares the synthetic genome to Wöhler’s chemical synthesis of urea in 1828. In the 19th century, scientists debated whether or not the chemicals that make up living cells–organic chemistry–had to be made by a cell possessing a “vital spark” or could be made by humans in a test tube. By synthesizing urea from ammonium cyanate, Wöhler broke down some of the mysticism associated with living cells. From that point on, organic chemistry stopped being magic and became a science.

Does the Venter Institute’s achievement show that life is just chemicals? I don’t think so …

Canada and synthetic biology in the wake of the first ‘synthetic’ bacteria

Margaret Munro’s excellent article on Craig Venter’s recently published synthetic biology achievement provides some Canadian perspective on the field as a whole. Titled as Synthetic genome inspires both awe and apprehension in the Vancouver Sun’s (it was titled elsewise in other CanWest publications), May 21, 2010 edition, the article offers,

“It is a remarkable technological feat,” said University of Toronto bioengineer Elizabeth Edwards.

“It’s paradigm-shifting,” said University of Calgary bioethicist and biochemist Gregor Wolbring, adding the fast-moving field of synthetic biology is ushering in “cyber” cells and life.

It could be as “transformative” as the computer revolution, said Andrew Hessel, of the Pink Army Cooperative, an Albertabased initiative promoting doit-yourself bioengineering.

Hessel said Venter deserves the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in creating “a new branch on the evolutionary tree” — one where humans shape and control new species.

Munro also provides a strongly cautionary position from Pat Roy Mooney of the ETC Group (a civil society or, as I sometimes say, activist group) as well as a good explanation for what all the excitement is about.

Wolbring (quoted in Munro’s article) has long commented on issues around nanotechnology, human enhancement, synthetic biology and more. His blog is here and his Twitter feed is here.

Andrew Hessel’s Pink Army Cooperative can be found here. If you go, you will find that the organization’s aim is,

A new approach to developing breast cancer treatments. Pink Army is a community-driven, member owned Cooperative operating by open source principles. Using synthetic biology and virotherapy to bring individualized treatments tailored to each patient’s DNA and cancer, faster and cheaper than ever before.

The ETC Group has written a news release on this latest synthetic biology event,

As Craig Venter announces lab-made life, ETC Group calls for Global Moratorium on Synthetic Biology.

In a paper published today in the journal Science, the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc announced the laboratory creation of the world’s first self-reproducing organism whose entire genome was built from scratch by a machine.(1) The construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.

As for the state of synthetic biology research in Canada, that might be available in an international agency’s publication. As far as I’m aware, there is no national research agency although I did (recently) find this mention on the National Institute of Nanotechnology’s Nano Life Sciences page,

The Nano Life Sciences researchers investigate the fields of synthetic biology, computational biology, protein structure, intermolecular membrane dynamics and microfluidics devices for biological analysis. [emphasis mine]

I will continue digging and come back to this topic (synthetic biology in Canada) as I find out more.

Bio: fiction, etc. festival in Europe

I believe that it truly was a coincidence when this information hit my mailbox in the same week that Craig Venter made his big synthetic biology announcement (noted on this blog here),

The 1st Bio:Fiction Science, Art & Filmfestival aims at attracting public awareness to synthetic biology and its ramifications for our daily life in the future. Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological systems not found in nature. Synthetic biology aims at creating new forms of life for practical purposes. By applying engineering principles to biology scientists will be able to design life forms much different from breeding or traditional genetic engineering. Filmmakers are encouraged to share their cinematic visions of a present or future society shaped by synthetic biology. Prizes will be awarded in the following categories: Short Fiction;Documentary Film; Animation; Online-Audience Award, Special Award of the Jury.

The festival will be held in Vienna, Austria in May 2011 and the deadline for entries is July 15, 2010. The festival website is here.

Synbio (synthetic biology) hits the big time: Venter, media storm, and synbio collaboration webcast

Craig Venter’s and his team’s achievement is being touted widely right now. From the news item (Researchers create first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell) on Nanowerk,

The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

This research will be published by Daniel Gibson et al in the May 20th edition of Science Express and will appear in an upcoming print issue of Science.

This has, of course, roused a discussion which is taking place in the blogosphere, in science journals, and elsewhere. Dave Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog offers a few thoughts about the achievement,

While many are hailing the replication as a significant breakthrough, others are not as impressed. For one thing, while it is described in some circles as synthetic life, the new life has a synthetic inside housed within a pre-existing bacterium shell. For another, there are related projects involving higher lifeforms that may deserve greater attention from a policy perspective.

His comments provide a bracing contrast to some of the hyperbole as per this news item (Life after the synthetic cell – opinions from eight leading synthetic-biology pundits) on Nanowerk,

In the Opinion section of Nature, eight leading synthetic-biology pundits reflect on what effect Craig Venter’s latest achievement could have on science and society.

All the commentators hail the work as highly significant — Arthur Caplan going so far as to describe it as “one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind”. Beyond that they have mixed feelings about what the Mycoplasma bacterium represents.

Coincidentally (or not), the Hudson Institute is hosting its third meeting about moral issues and synthetic biology. From this news item (Moral issues raised by synthetic biology subject of Hastings Center Project) on Nanowerk,

The Hastings Center has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary research into ethical issues in emerging technology. The synthetic biology project is funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation . Project participants include synthetic biologists, bioethicists, philosophers, and public policy experts. The Center’s work is part of a comprehensive look at synthetic biology by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Other participants in the initiative are the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [emphasis mine]

Intriguingly, the Woodrow Wilson Center hosts the Synthetic Biology Project (a spinoff from their Project on Emerging Technologies [PEN]).

Last week (May 12, 2010), the SynBio Project webcast (access here) an event titled, Synbio in Society: Toward New Forms of Collaboration? which featured,

One response to society’s concerns about synthetic biology has been to institutionalize the involve­ment of social scientists in the field. There have been a series of initiatives in which ethics and biosafety approaches have been purposely incorporated into synthetic biology research and development. [emphasis mine] The collaborative Human Practices model within the NSF-funded SynBERC project was the first initiative in which social scientists were explicitly integrated into a synthetic biology research program. But these new collaborations have also flourished in the UK where four research councils have funded seven scientific networks in synthetic biology that require consideration of ethical, legal and social issues. Another example is the US-UK Synthetic Aesthetics Project, which brings together synthetic biologists, social scientists, designers and artists to explore collaborations between synthetic biology and the creative professions.

Similarly, the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Program funds a project called Synth-ethics, which “aims at discerning relevant ethical issues in close collaboration with the synthetic biology community.

I watched the webcast as it was being streamed live unaware that a big announcement would be made this week. The science community did not share my ignorance so this work has been discussed for months (Science is a peer-reviewed journal and peer review, even if expedited, is going to take more than a month).

I’m willing to bet that the webcast and the Hudson Institute meeting were timed to coincide with the announcement and that the journal Nature was given lots of time to solicit opinions from eight experts.

I have one more item of note. Science Channel will be presenting a special programme on Venter’s work,”Creating Synthetic Life, premiering Thursday, June 3, 2010, at 8PM e/p.” More from their press announcement,

Over the course of five years, only Science Channel cameras captured the failures, successes and breakthrough moments of Dr. Venter, Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith, Dr. Clyde Hutchison and JCVI [J. Craig Venter Institute] researchers as they meticulously sought to create a synthetic single-celled organism.

What exactly does today’s news mean for the human race? Where exactly will it take us? Could the technology be used for negative purposes? What are the ethical concerns we must weigh before using it?… This one-hour special is an open forum discussion featuring Dr. Venter, leading bioethicists, top scientists and other members of the scientific community discussing the breakthrough’s ramifications and how it may change our world and the future.

Your Questions Answered allows viewers to ask the experts about how this technology will affect their lives. From now through May 26, submit your questions via Facebook, and they could be asked during the show.

Clearly, Science Channel took a calculated risk (see Venter’s bio page to understand why it was a calculated risk) when they started following Venter’s work.

In looking at all this, it’s fascinating to consider the combination of planning, calculated risk-taking, and luck that have come together to create this ‘synthetic biology moment’.

Of special interest to me, is the way that social scientists and ethicists and others have been integrated into the larger synthetic biology initiative. In my more cynical moments, I view this integration as a means of trying to allay concerns before a ‘stem cell’ or GM (genetically modified) food (aka Frankenfoods) controversy erupts. In less cynical moments, I like to think that lessons were learned and that the concerns will be heard and heeded.

Synbio (Synthetic Biology) in society a May 12, 2010 panel discussion hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

The proper title for this event, hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) is: Synbio in Society: Toward New Forms of Collaboration? which will be webcast live (I hope they’re able to pull that off this time) this coming Wednesday, May 12, 2010.  The time is listed as 12:30 pm ET (9:30 am PT) but a light lunch (for attendees at the Washington, DC live event) is also mentioned and the folks at PEN haven’t distinguished (as per their usual practice) the time that the panel starts.

From the news release,

One response to society’s concerns about synthetic biology has been to institutionalize the involvement of social scientists in the field. There have been a series of initiatives in which ethics and biosafety approaches have been purposely incorporated into synthetic biology research and development. The collaborative Human Practices model within the NSF-funded SynBERC project was the first initiative in which social scientists were explicitly integrated into a synthetic biology research program. But these new collaborations have also flourished in the UK where four research councils have funded seven scientific networks in synthetic biology that require consideration of ethical, legal and social issues. Another example is the US-UK Synthetic Aesthetics Project, which brings together synthetic biologists, social scientists, designers and artists to explore collaborations between synthetic biology and the creative professions.

Similarly, the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme funds projects like Synth-ethics, which “aims at discerning relevant ethical issues in close collaboration with the synthetic biology community.” (http://synthethics.eu/) and SYBHEL, which aims to examine ethical legal and social aspects of SynBio as it applies to health care (http://sybhel.org/).

On May 12, 2010, the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars will present a panel discussion to explore new forms of collaboration that have emerged between scientists and social scientists working on synthetic biology. A distinguished group of speakers will explore the many ways in which the new science of synthetic biology–far from standing apart from the rest of the academic disciplines–is in constant conversation with the social sciences and the arts.

While I’m not a big fan of the whole synthetic biology movement, I do find this collaboration between sciences/social sciences/arts to be quite intriguing.

You can read more about the event or click on to the live streaming webcast on Weds. or RSVP to attend the actual event here.

Quite by chance I found out that Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) includes synthetic biology in its programme focus. From the Nano Life Sciences at NINT page,

The Nano Life Sciences researchers investigate the fields of synthetic biology, computational biology, protein structure, intermolecular membrane dynamics and microfluidics devices for biological analysis.

* Synthetic biology is a young field that uses genetic engineering and DNA synthesis to develop new proteins and genetic circuits. Proteins are the nanoscale machinery of life while genetic circuits represent computational “logic” capabilities in cells. Research in this field could lead to a “toolkit” for “re-programming” bacteria to produce useful functions.

I haven’t been able to find any more details about the Canadian synbio endeavour on the NINT website.