Tag Archives: synthetic biology

Essays on Frankenstein

Slate.com is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives:  Futurography and Future Tense.

The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?


Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),

OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?

Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.

Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”

It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.

As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.

But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.

Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”

Is it actually about bad science, though?

Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.

Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.

This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.

Does that make it into a warning against playing God?

It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.

Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.

I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814  at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy.  Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.

Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,

Key Players

Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”

Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].

Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.

Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.

Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.

J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.




Popular Culture

Further Reading


‘Franken’ and CRISPR

The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),

In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.

William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”

A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”

All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.

Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.

This series looks to be a good introduction while being a bit problematic in spots, which roughly sums up my conclusion about their ‘nano’ series in my Oct. 7, 2016 posting titled: Futurography’s nanotechnology series: a digest.

By the way, I noted the mention of CRISPR as it brought up an issue that they don’t appear to be addressing in this series (perhaps they will do this elsewhere?): intellectual property.

There’s a patent dispute over CRISPR as noted in this American Chemical Society’s Chemistry and Engineering News Jan. 9, 2017 video,

Playing God

This series on Frankenstein is taking on other contentious issues. A perennial favourite is ‘playing God’ as noted in Bina Venkataraman’s Jan. 11, 2017 essay on the topic,

Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.

The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.

So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.

She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,

The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.

At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.

Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers

The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),

In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.

And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.

Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.

As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.

Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.

The end of this piece

There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.

Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.

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 stipintern@wilsoncenter.org 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.