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.

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

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