Tag Archives: Todd Kuiken

A transatlantic report highlighting the risks and opportunities associated with synthetic biology and bioengineering

I love e-Life, the open access journal where its editors noted that a submitted synthetic biology and bioengineering report was replete with US and UK experts (along with a European or two) but no expert input from other parts of the world. In response the authors added ‘transatlantic’ to the title. It was a good decision since it was too late to add any new experts if the authors planned to have their paper published in the foreseeable future.

I’ve commented many times here when panels of experts include only Canadian, US, UK, and, sometimes, European or Commonwealth (Australia/New Zealand) experts that we need to broaden our perspectives and now I can add: or at least acknowledge (e.g. transatlantic) that the perspectives taken are reflective of a rather narrow range of countries.

Now getting to the report, here’s more from a November 21, 2017 University of Cambridge press release,

Human genome editing, 3D-printed replacement organs and artificial photosynthesis – the field of bioengineering offers great promise for tackling the major challenges that face our society. But as a new article out today highlights, these developments provide both opportunities and risks in the short and long term.

Rapid developments in the field of synthetic biology and its associated tools and methods, including more widely available gene editing techniques, have substantially increased our capabilities for bioengineering – the application of principles and techniques from engineering to biological systems, often with the goal of addressing ‘real-world’ problems.

In a feature article published in the open access journal eLife, an international team of experts led by Dr Bonnie Wintle and Dr Christian R. Boehm from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, capture perspectives of industry, innovators, scholars, and the security community in the UK and US on what they view as the major emerging issues in the field.

Dr Wintle says: “The growth of the bio-based economy offers the promise of addressing global environmental and societal challenges, but as our paper shows, it can also present new kinds of challenges and risks. The sector needs to proceed with caution to ensure we can reap the benefits safely and securely.”

The report is intended as a summary and launching point for policy makers across a range of sectors to further explore those issues that may be relevant to them.

Among the issues highlighted by the report as being most relevant over the next five years are:

Artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture for producing biofuels

If technical hurdles can be overcome, such developments might contribute to the future adoption of carbon capture systems, and provide sustainable sources of commodity chemicals and fuel.

Enhanced photosynthesis for agricultural productivity

Synthetic biology may hold the key to increasing yields on currently farmed land – and hence helping address food security – by enhancing photosynthesis and reducing pre-harvest losses, as well as reducing post-harvest and post-consumer waste.

Synthetic gene drives

Gene drives promote the inheritance of preferred genetic traits throughout a species, for example to prevent malaria-transmitting mosquitoes from breeding. However, this technology raises questions about whether it may alter ecosystems [emphasis mine], potentially even creating niches where a new disease-carrying species or new disease organism may take hold.

Human genome editing

Genome engineering technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 offer the possibility to improve human lifespans and health. However, their implementation poses major ethical dilemmas. It is feasible that individuals or states with the financial and technological means may elect to provide strategic advantages to future generations.

Defence agency research in biological engineering

The areas of synthetic biology in which some defence agencies invest raise the risk of ‘dual-use’. For example, one programme intends to use insects to disseminate engineered plant viruses that confer traits to the target plants they feed on, with the aim of protecting crops from potential plant pathogens – but such technologies could plausibly also be used by others to harm targets.

In the next five to ten years, the authors identified areas of interest including:

Regenerative medicine: 3D printing body parts and tissue engineering

While this technology will undoubtedly ease suffering caused by traumatic injuries and a myriad of illnesses, reversing the decay associated with age is still fraught with ethical, social and economic concerns. Healthcare systems would rapidly become overburdened by the cost of replenishing body parts of citizens as they age and could lead new socioeconomic classes, as only those who can pay for such care themselves can extend their healthy years.

Microbiome-based therapies

The human microbiome is implicated in a large number of human disorders, from Parkinson’s to colon cancer, as well as metabolic conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Synthetic biology approaches could greatly accelerate the development of more effective microbiota-based therapeutics. However, there is a risk that DNA from genetically engineered microbes may spread to other microbiota in the human microbiome or into the wider environment.

Intersection of information security and bio-automation

Advancements in automation technology combined with faster and more reliable engineering techniques have resulted in the emergence of robotic ‘cloud labs’ where digital information is transformed into DNA then expressed in some target organisms. This opens the possibility of new kinds of information security threats, which could include tampering with digital DNA sequences leading to the production of harmful organisms, and sabotaging vaccine and drug production through attacks on critical DNA sequence databases or equipment.

Over the longer term, issues identified include:

New makers disrupt pharmaceutical markets

Community bio-labs and entrepreneurial startups are customizing and sharing methods and tools for biological experiments and engineering. Combined with open business models and open source technologies, this could herald opportunities for manufacturing therapies tailored to regional diseases that multinational pharmaceutical companies might not find profitable. But this raises concerns around the potential disruption of existing manufacturing markets and raw material supply chains as well as fears about inadequate regulation, less rigorous product quality control and misuse.

Platform technologies to address emerging disease pandemics

Emerging infectious diseases—such as recent Ebola and Zika virus disease outbreaks—and potential biological weapons attacks require scalable, flexible diagnosis and treatment. New technologies could enable the rapid identification and development of vaccine candidates, and plant-based antibody production systems.

Shifting ownership models in biotechnology

The rise of off-patent, generic tools and the lowering of technical barriers for engineering biology has the potential to help those in low-resource settings, benefit from developing a sustainable bioeconomy based on local needs and priorities, particularly where new advances are made open for others to build on.

Dr Jenny Molloy comments: “One theme that emerged repeatedly was that of inequality of access to the technology and its benefits. The rise of open source, off-patent tools could enable widespread sharing of knowledge within the biological engineering field and increase access to benefits for those in developing countries.”

Professor Johnathan Napier from Rothamsted Research adds: “The challenges embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals will require all manner of ideas and innovations to deliver significant outcomes. In agriculture, we are on the cusp of new paradigms for how and what we grow, and where. Demonstrating the fairness and usefulness of such approaches is crucial to ensure public acceptance and also to delivering impact in a meaningful way.”

Dr Christian R. Boehm concludes: “As these technologies emerge and develop, we must ensure public trust and acceptance. People may be willing to accept some of the benefits, such as the shift in ownership away from big business and towards more open science, and the ability to address problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as food security and disease. But proceeding without the appropriate safety precautions and societal consensus—whatever the public health benefits—could damage the field for many years to come.”

The research was made possible by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative (both at the University of Cambridge), and the Future of Humanity Institute (University of Oxford). It was based on a workshop co-funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering by Bonnie C Wintle, Christian R Boehm, Catherine Rhodes, Jennifer C Molloy, Piers Millett, Laura Adam, Rainer Breitling, Rob Carlson, Rocco Casagrande, Malcolm Dando, Robert Doubleday, Eric Drexler, Brett Edwards, Tom Ellis, Nicholas G Evans, Richard Hammond, Jim Haseloff, Linda Kahl, Todd Kuiken, Benjamin R Lichman, Colette A Matthewman, Johnathan A Napier, Seán S ÓhÉigeartaigh, Nicola J Patron, Edward Perello, Philip Shapira, Joyce Tait, Eriko Takano, William J Sutherland. eLife; 14 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.30247

This paper is open access and the editors have included their notes to the authors and the authors’ response.

You may have noticed that I highlighted a portion of the text concerning synthetic gene drives. Coincidentally I ran across a November 16, 2017 article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic where the topic is discussed within the context of a project in New Zealand, ‘Predator Free 2050’ (Note: A link has been removed),

Until the 13th century, the only land mammals in New Zealand were bats. In this furless world, local birds evolved a docile temperament. Many of them, like the iconic kiwi and the giant kakapo parrot, lost their powers of flight. Gentle and grounded, they were easy prey for the rats, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, and possums that were later introduced by humans. Between them, these predators devour more than 26 million chicks and eggs every year. They have already driven a quarter of the nation’s unique birds to extinction.

Many species now persist only in offshore islands where rats and their ilk have been successfully eradicated, or in small mainland sites like Zealandia where they are encircled by predator-proof fences. The songs in those sanctuaries are echoes of the New Zealand that was.

But perhaps, they also represent the New Zealand that could be.

In recent years, many of the country’s conservationists and residents have rallied behind Predator-Free 2050, an extraordinarily ambitious plan to save the country’s birds by eradicating its invasive predators. Native birds of prey will be unharmed, but Predator-Free 2050’s research strategy, which is released today, spells doom for rats, possums, and stoats (a large weasel). They are to die, every last one of them. No country, anywhere in the world, has managed such a task in an area that big. The largest island ever cleared of rats, Australia’s Macquarie Island, is just 50 square miles in size. New Zealand is 2,000 times bigger. But, the country has committed to fulfilling its ecological moonshot within three decades.

In 2014, Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at MIT, drew a Venn diagram that troubles him to this day. In it, he and his colleagues laid out several possible uses for gene drives—a nascent technology for spreading designer genes through groups of wild animals. Typically, a given gene has a 50-50 chance of being passed to the next generation. But gene drives turn that coin toss into a guarantee, allowing traits to zoom through populations in just a few generations. There are a few natural examples, but with CRISPR, scientists can deliberately engineer such drives.

Suppose you have a population of rats, roughly half of which are brown, and the other half white. Now, imagine there is a gene that affects each rat’s color. It comes in two forms, one leading to brown fur, and the other leading to white fur. A male with two brown copies mates with a female with two white copies, and all their offspring inherit one of each. Those offspring breed themselves, and the brown and white genes continue cascading through the generations in a 50-50 split. This is the usual story of inheritance. But you can subvert it with CRISPR, by programming the brown gene to cut its counterpart and replace it with another copy of itself. Now, the rats’ children are all brown-furred, as are their grandchildren, and soon the whole population is brown.

Forget fur. The same technique could spread an antimalarial gene through a mosquito population, or drought-resistance through crop plants. The applications are vast, but so are the risks. In theory, gene drives spread so quickly and relentlessly that they could rewrite an entire wild population, and once released, they would be hard to contain. If the concept of modifying the genes of organisms is already distasteful to some, gene drives magnify that distaste across national, continental, and perhaps even global scales.

These excerpts don’t do justice to this thought-provoking article. If you have time, I recommend reading it in its entirety  as it provides some insight into gene drives and, with some imagination on the reader’s part, the potential for the other technologies discussed in the report.

One last comment, I notice that Eric Drexler is cited as on the report’s authors. He’s familiar to me as K. Eric Drexler, the author of the book that popularized nanotechnology in the US and other countries, Engines of Creation (1986) .

Funding trends for US synthetic biology efforts

Less than 1% of total US federal funding for synthetic biology is dedicated to risk research according to a Sept. 16, 2015 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars news release on EurekAlert,

A new analysis by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Wilson Center finds the Defense Department and its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fund much of the U.S. government’s research in synthetic biology, with less than 1 percent of total federal funding going to risk research.

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Wilson Center news release can also be found here on the Center’s report publication page where it goes on to provide more detail and where you can download the report,

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The increase in DARPA research spending comes as NSF is winding down its initial investment in the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or SynBERC,” says Dr. Todd Kuiken, senior program associate with the project. “After the SynBERC funding ends next year, it is unclear if there will be a dedicated synthetic biology research program outside of the Pentagon. There is also little investment addressing potential risks and ethical issues, which can affect public acceptance and market growth as the field advances.”

The new study found that less than one percent of the total U.S. funding is focused on synthetic biology risk research and approximately one percent addresses ethical, legal, and social issues.

Internationally, research funding is increasing. Last year, research investments by the European Commission and research agencies in the United Kingdom exceeded non-defense spending in the United States, the report finds.

The research spending comes at a time of growing interest in synthetic biology, particularly surrounding the potential presented by new gene-editing techniques. Recent research by the industry group SynBioBeta indicated that, so far in 2015, synthetic biology companies raised half a billion dollars – more than the total investments in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In a separate Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Sept. 16, 2015 announcement about the report, an upcoming event notice was included,

Save the date: On Oct. 7, 2015, the Synthetic Biology Project will be releasing a new report on synthetic biology and federal regulations. More details will be forthcoming, but the report release will include a noon event [EST] at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

I haven’t been able to find any more information about this proposed report launch but you may want to check the Synthetic Biology Project website for details as they become available. ETA Oct. 1, 2015: The new report titled: Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? will be launched on Oct. 15, 2015 according to an Oct. 1, 2015 notice,

As more applications based on synthetic biology come to market, are the existing federal regulations adequate to address the risks posed by this emerging technology?

Please join us for the release of our new report, Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? Panelists will discuss how synthetic biology applications would be regulated by the U.S. Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, how this would affect the market pathway of these applications and whether the existing framework will protect human health and the environment.

A light lunch will be served.


Lynn Bergeson, report author; Managing Partner, Bergeson & Campbell

David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program

Thursday,October 15th, 2015
12:00pm – 2:00pm

6th Floor Board Room


Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000


Nov. 19, 2013: Myths & Realities of the DIYbio Movement event at Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington, DC)

The Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is releasing a report tomorrow (Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013) titled: Myths & Realities of the DIYbio Movement. If you’re lucky enough to be in Washington, DC, you can attend the live event,

As the Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYbio) community has grown, so have concerns among media and policymakers about these science enthusiasts’ ability to wield DNA and manipulate life. In the words of one Wall Street Journal headline, “In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover their Inner Frankenstein.”

The realities of DIYbio, however, contradict the media myths. In its first-ever survey of DIYbio practitioners, the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars finds the community to be far different from these fearful and often sensationalist representations.

The report challenges seven widely held beliefs about DIYbio practitioners, particularly about their labs, capabilities and goals. The survey finds that the science they practice is far more benign than described in the popular press. In fact, the report suggests that the DIYbio community offers national education and entrepreneurship opportunities, rather than over-inflated risks. The report concludes with six policy recommendations based on the survey results.

What: Join us at the Wilson Center on Nov. 19 for the release of the survey results and analysis, followed by a panel discussion.

Copies of the report will be available at the event and online on Nov. 19 here: http://www.synbioproject.org/events/archive/6673/

You must register to attend the event. Please RSVP here: http://bit.ly/1gGZZLd [there will possibly be a webcast posted at a later date]

More information can be found here: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/myths-realities-the-diybio-movement

When: Nov. 19, 2013 from noon – 2:00 p.m. EST (Light lunch available at 11:30 am.)

Who: Daniel Grushkin, co-founder of Genspace and Wilson Center Fellow
Jason Bobe, co-founder of DIYbio.org
Todd Kuiken, Synthetic Biology Project

Where: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
5th Floor Conference Room
Ronald Reagan Building
1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, D.C.

For directions, visit: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/directions

To learn more about the Synthetic Biology Project, visit: http://www.synbioproject.org/about/

According to the Center’s event webpage, there may be a webcast of the event available but it seems they won’t be livestreaming so you will have to wait until it’s posted.

I have mentioned Genspace here in a Sept. 21, 2012 posting titled: A tooth and art installation in Vancouver (Canada) and bodyhacking and DIY (do-it-yourself) culture in the US. Scroll down about 1/2 way to find the mention of Genspace (New York’s Community Biolab) and its activities. (At the time, I was focused on the bodyhacking aspect of DIYbio.)

Jason Bobe’s DIYbio.org is new to me. Here’s a little more about the organization from the homepage (Note: Links have been removed),

DIYbio.org was founded in 2008 with the mission of establishing a vibrant, productive and safe community of DIY biologists.  Central to our mission is the belief that biotechnology and greater public understanding about it has the potential to benefit everyone.

Join the global discussion
Find local groups, people and events near you
Read the diybio blog
Ask a biosafety expert your safety question
Subscribe to the quarterly postcard update
Browse the library of DIY lab hardware
Get the diybio logo and contact info

I checked out the organization’s Local Groups webpage and found three groups in Canada,,

DIYbio Toronto (this is the only city that has any current activity listed on its site)

Welcome to DIYbio Vancouver!

Biospace (Victoria, BC)

Rising from the dead: the inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products

The inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products or the Consumer Products Inventory (CPI) is still cited in articles about nanotechnology and its pervasive use in consumer products despite the fact that the inventory was effectively rendered inactive (i.e., dead) in 2009 and that  it was a voluntary system with no oversight, meaning whoever made the submission to the inventory could make any claims they wanted. Now that it’s 2013, things are about to change according to an Oct. 28, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

As a resource for consumers, scientists, and policy makers, the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (VTSuN) has joined the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to renew and expand the Nanotechnology Consumer Product Inventory, an important source of information about products using nanomaterials.

“We want people to appreciate the revolution, such as in electronics and medicine. But we also want them to be informed,” said Nina Quadros, a research scientist at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and associate director of VTSuN, who leads a team of Virginia Tech faculty members and students on this project. Todd Kuiken, senior program associate, and David Rajeski, director of the science and technology innovation program, lead this project at the Wilson Center.

The Oct. 28, 2013 Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) news release by Susan Trulove (which originated the news item),provides a brief history of the inventory and a description of its revivification,

The Wilson Center and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology created the inventory in 2005. It grew from 54 to more than 1,000 products, many of which have come and gone. The inventory became the most frequently cited resource, showcasing the widespread applications of nanotechnology. However, in 2009, the project was no longer funded.

“I used it in publications and presentations when talking about all the ways nano is part of people’s lives in consumer products,” said Matthew Hull, who manages the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science’s investment portfolio in nanoscale science and engineering, which includes the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology. “But the inventory was criticized by researchers, regulators, and manufacturers for the lack of scientific information available to support product claims.”

In a meeting with his friend, Andrew Maynard, director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, who had initiated the inventory when he was at the Wilson Center, Hull proposed leveraging Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology resources to improve the inventory.

“My role was to ask ‘what if’ and [the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology] ran with it,” said Hull.

A partnership was formed and, with funding from the Virginia Tech institute, the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology restructured the inventory to improve the reliability, functionality, and scientific credibility of the database.

“Specifically, we added scientific significance and usefulness by including qualitative and quantitative descriptors for the products and the nanomaterials contained in these products, such as size, concentration, and potential exposure routes,” said Quadros. For example, an intentional exposure route would be the way a medicine is administered. An unintentional exposure would be when a child chews on a toy that has been treated with silver nanoparticles that are used as an antimicrobial. The potential health effect of nanomaterials on children was Quadros doctoral research and she used the inventory to find products designed for children that use nanomaterials, such as plush toys.

“One of the best things about the new version of the inventory is the additional information and the ability to search by product type or the type of nanomaterial,” she said. “When researchers were first attempting to assess the potential environmental impacts of nanotechnology, one main challenge was understanding how these nanomaterials might end up in the environment in the first place. After searching the CPI and seeing the vast applications of nanotechnologies in consumer products it was easier to narrow down scenarios.”

For example, Quadros said many silver nanoparticles are used in clothing for antimicrobial protection, so we can infer that some silver nanoparticles may end up in wastewater treatment plants after clothes washing. This helped justify some of the research on the effects of silver nanoparticle in the biological wastewater treatment processes. Currently, the inventory lists 188 products under the ‘clothing’ category.”

This team also included published scientific data related to those products, where available, and developed a metric to assess the reliability of the data on each inventory entry.

The team interviewed more than 50 nanotechnology experts with more than 350 combined years of experience in nanotechnology, Quadros said. “Their answers provided valuable guidance to help us address diverse stakeholder needs.”

In addition, the site’s users can log in and add information based on their own expertise. “Anyone can suggest edits. The curator and reviewer will approve the edits, and then the new information will go live,” Quadros said.

“We’ve added the horsepower of [the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology], but opened it by means of crowdsourcing to new information, such as refuting or supporting claims made about products,” Hull said.

“The goal of this work is to create a living, growing inventory for the exchange of accurate information on nano­enabled consumer products,” Quadros said. “Improved information sharing will allow citizens, manufacturers, scientists, policymakers, and others to better understand how nanotechnology is being used in the consumer marketplace,” she said.

As of October 2013,

The inventory currently lists more than 1,600 consumer products that claim to contain nanotechnology or have been found to contain nanomaterials.

Quadros will give a presentation about the inventory at the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization conference in Santa Barbara on Nov. 3-5 and will present to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation in the spring.

Key collaborators at Virginia Tech are Sean McGinnis, an associate research professor in the materials science and engineering department; Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering; her postdoc, Eric Vejerano, who was instrumental in development of product categories; and Michael Hochella, a university distinguished professor in the geosciences department and Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology director.

You can find the Consumer Products Inventory here where it is still hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The website for the Second Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization Conference where Quadros will be presenting can be found here and is where this conference description can be found,

The objective of this conference is to bring together scientific experts from academia, industry, and government agencies from around the world to present and discuss current research findings on the subject of nanotechnology and sustainability.

The conference program will address the critical aspects of sustainable nanotechnology such as life cycle assessment, green synthesis, green energy, industrial partnerships, environmental and biological fate, and the overall sustainability of engineered nanomaterials. In principle, this involves the fundamental/applied research on the chemistry of producing new green nanomaterials; eco-manufacturing processing of nanomaterials and products, using nanotechnology to benefit society, and examining possible harmful effects of nanotechnology.

The conference will also foster new collaborations between academic and industrial participants. This community of users, researchers and developers of engineered nanomaterials will provide a long-term, scientific assessment of where the science is for sustainable nano, where it should be heading, and what steps academics, government agencies and others can take now to reach targeted goals. In addition, the conference will serve as the platform to initiate the formation of the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO), a non-profit, international professional society dedicated to advancing sustainable nanotechnology through education, research, and promotion of responsible development of nanotechnology.

Finally because I can resist no longer, especially so near to Hallowe’en, I guess you could call the ‘renewed’ CPI, a zombie CPI as it’s back from the dead and it needs brains,

Zombies in Moscow, 26 April 2009 Credit: teujene [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zombies_in_Moscow.jpg]

Zombies in Moscow, 26 April 2009 Credit: teujene [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zombies_in_Moscow.jpg]

Stranger Visions at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars June 3, 2013 in Washington, DC

I got a notice from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Science and Technology Innovation Program about an art/science presentation taking place on June 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. From their May 30, 2013 announcement,

Stranger Visions: The DNA You Leave Behind

Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an information artist who is interested in exploring art as research and public inquiry. In her recent project Stranger Visions she creates literal figurative portrait sculptures from analyses of genetic material collected in public places. Working with the traces strangers unwittingly leave behind, Dewey-Hagborg calls attention to the impulse toward genetic determinism and the potential for a culture of genetic surveillance. The project raises questions about the DNA we leave behind, privacy, and numerous legal and bioethical issues.

Designed as a provocation, Stranger Visions has been featured in the international news media, including Smithsonian, CNN, the New York Times, and National Public Radio.

In this exhibit and policy discussion, Dewey-Hagborg will discuss her process and progress on Stranger Visions. She will join Professor Sonia Suter of the George Washington University Law School and Dr. Todd Kuiken and Eleonore Pauwels of the Synthetic Biology Project  in a discussion and public Q&A about the bioethical, legal, and policy dimensions of the work.

You must register to attend the event. No RSVP is required to view the webcast.

Click here to RSVP. [If you are attending in person; viewing the webcast does not require an RSVP]

*** Webcast LIVE at [http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/stranger-visions-the-dna-you-leave-behind]***


What: Stranger Visions: The DNA You Leave Behind

When: June 3, 2013 from 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Who:Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Information Artist and Ph.D. Candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Professor Sonia M. Suter, George Washington University Law SchoolNancy J. Kelley, JD, MPP; Founding Executive Director of the New York Genome Center; a representative from the FBI is tentatively scheduled to discuss their methods and protocols surrounding DNA collectionand analysis.

Dr. Todd Kuiken and Eleonore Pauwels of the Synthetic Biology Project will moderate the session.

Where: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

6th Floor Board Room

Ronald Reagan Building

1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW

Washington, D.C.

For directions, visit: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/directions

To learn more about the Synthetic Biology Project, visit: http://www.synbioproject.org/about/

It was not immediately apparent to me that this event is being held as part of the Center’s Synthetic Biology Project event series. Interesting approach to bioethical and other issues.

ETA June 3, 2013: Eleanore Pauwels, one of the Wilson Center researchers on the panel, wrote a May 31, 2013 commentary on some of the issues raised by Dewey-Hagborg’s work on Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),

… Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a 30-year-old Ph.D. student studying electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has the weird habit of gathering the DNA people leave behind, from cigarette butts and fingernails to used coffee cups and chewing gum. She comes to Genspace to extract DNA from the detritus she collects and sequence specific genomic regions from her samples. The data are then fed into a computer program, which churns out a facial model of the person who left the hair, fingernail, cigarette, or gum behind. Using a 3-D printer, she creates life-sized masks that offer a depiction of what the anonymous DNA donor might look like. And they may be coming to a gallery wall near you, with a show at the New York Public Library slated for early 2014.

Such a process might seem artistically cutting edge to some. But, for most of us, the “Yuck!” factor kicks in quickly. Whether you find it cool or creepy, though, this DNA-profiling experiment raises a number of legal and ethical questions that no one knows how to handle. To what degree does the DNA we leave behind in public spaces belong to us? Does a facial mask without a name raise the same issues as a photo? In either case, what exactly is our expectation of privacy?

Just because an individual sheds DNA in a public space does not mean that he or she does not care about preserving the privacy of the genetic material. There was no informed consent given to access that data. On the other hand, some might say the major problem is not unauthorized access to data but misuse of data. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which someone sequences the genome of an acquaintance (or rival) who left a cigarette behind. If the person who tested the cigarette found a risk gene for a mental disorder and posted the results on Facebook with the smoker’s name, the information could affect his social and professional life.

…  To what extent do genetic traits (such as ancestry) tell you about how a person looks? Based on the analysis of these genetic traits, how accurate is the 3-D facial model produced by the computer? At the request of a Delaware forensic practice, Dewey-Hagborg has been working on a sculpture from a DNA sample to identify the remains of an unidentified woman. This opens another black box at the connection between law enforcement and what we might call “DIY forensic science”: Here, what is the role of the state versus that of the individual?

I recommend reading the commentary in its entirety. As for the questions Pauwels raises, I’m wondering how I’d feel if I saw a mask that l00ked like me at the New York Public Library in 2014. Of course, that begs the next question, would I recognize myself?