New Yorker: Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?

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43 Responses to “New Yorker: Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?”

  1. RogueModron says:

    @Mosswatson:

    Granted on the word merely, but animals certainly do not equal “the planet.” The Earth would roll on without them, as well as without us, just fine.

  2. noen says:

    “ok, so, Immortality. How much, and give it to me.”

    It won’t be for you. It will be reserved only for others. You will get to be their dog, literally. Make sure you put on a good show for your new masters.

    ======

    UNBEHAGEN IN DER NATUR
    Slavoj Žižek

    Biogenetics, with its reduction of the human psyche itself to an object of technological manipulation is, therefore, effectively, a kind of empirical instantiation of what Heidegger perceived as the ‘danger’ inherent to modern technology. What is crucial here is the interdependence of man and nature: by reducing man to just another natural object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right: humanity itself relies on some notion of ‘human nature’ as what we simply inherited, namely, the impenetrable dimension in/of ourselves into which we are born/thrown. The paradox is, thus, that there is man only insofar as there is impenetrable inhuman nature. With the prospect, however, of biogenetic interventions opened up by the access to the genome, the species is able to freely change/redefine itself, its own coordinates; this prospect effectively emancipates humankind from the constraints of a finite species, from its enslavement to the ‘selfish genes’. However, there is a price for this emancipation:

    “With interventions into man’s genetic inheritance, the domination over nature reverts into an act of taking-control-over-oneself, which changes our generic-ethical self-understanding and can disturb the necessary conditions for an autonomous way of life and universalistic understanding of morals.”

    “I say: evolve, and let the chips fall where they may.”

    That would be very foolish. Here, I have some intelligent nano machines I just made. Lets just let them out and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

  3. Yamara says:

    MossWatson @#7

    “…we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us”

    That’s not “unbelievable arrogance”, that’s just a given of human life. As soon as we made a tool to make another tool, this what we became.

    “The planet is in danger, and nature needs help.”

    Ah, now, that’s blind hubris! “Help”, by definition, is not a part of “Nature”.

    Have a nice flaming asteroid, Michael Specter, on the house! Thanks for all your help.

  4. mdh says:

    the intricate folding of the DNA is an absolutely critical part in its expression?

    The genetic code is hardware, also.

  5. Brainspore says:

    @ Slugabed:

    Gattaca will remain fictional as long as people are driven to have unprotected sex.

  6. RogueModron says:

    Anytime someone writes “The planet is in danger” I cannot take them seriously, since that’s such a foolish statement. Humans merely endanger their own survival, but the planet would be just fine without us.

  7. danlalan says:

    @MDH

    Ok, I’m with you on gunpowder and nuclear energy…but petrochemicals? We were actually using them as an energy source before napalm. So there, HA!

    and you forgot both sticks AND stones.

  8. mdh says:

    @bugs – i didn’t intend to phrase that as a question, but since I did, thanks for the great answer!

  9. MossWatson says:

    @Roguemodron

    Is it really the lump of rock beneath it all that you care about? What about the complex web of relationships made up of billions of interdependent living organisms, known as life? To me this is worth protecting, and I wouldn’t consider the planet “just fine” without it.

  10. Trent Hawkins says:

    ok, so, Immortality. How much, and give it to me.

  11. Yamara says:

    noen @#12

    “ok, so, Immortality. How much, and give it to me.”

    It won’t be for you. It will be reserved only for others. You will get to be their dog, literally. Make sure you put on a good show for your new masters.

    Sure, sure, that’s a possibility. But as the article pointed out, a lot of this knowledge is “open source”. Will all the gold in world guarantee the idle rich immortality when they need some DNA hackers to make their elixir first? Who can pull the trigger fastest? Also, the isolated mindset to maintain puppetmaster-like control over subordinates may prove untenable in this scenario, or even… backward.

    No, I think this story is going to get much more frisky than simply writing “ye doom is come” on the back of a fat check.

  12. octopod says:

    clearly, as the prophetess foretold, we will make a perfect pesticide for the crops that’s good for people and healthy and keeps the crops preserved too because we need the food because it’s food and stuff and organic food is good also.

  13. arkizzle / Moderator says:

    They’re already using modified bacteria to make diesel, in San Francisco:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8220278.stm

    Hopefully that’s not a geo-restricted clip..

  14. bjacques says:

    I don’t know about you guys, but I could go for some stem-cell caviar right now. That can’t be too hard, can it? And a lot of sturgeon would be the happier for it.

  15. danlalan says:

    The potential for being able to build organisms that can take virtually any shape, include any mechanical function and incorporate virtually any chemical process staggers the imagination.

    Change is happening so fast I can barely get my head around it. I’m not that old, but we used slide rules when I was in school.

    And now this.

    Wow.

    The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet. -W. Gibson

  16. danlalan says:

    @Roku

    The dates have actually been pushed back due to recent research. Earliest evidence of hominid use of stone tools is back at about 2.5Myr, and evidence of campfires is back to about 1.4Myr.

    Yeah, I’ve read the research, I was going with a less controversial reading, but ok, these make my point as well.

    Far more species have gone extinct than have ever lived. Many certainly went extinct when faced with pressure from critters other than humans. Anaerobic lifeforms were almost completely eliminated by the rise of photosynthetic plants. The thunder birds of South America went extinct when mammals invaded from North America after the continents collided. It also appears that the extinction of the North American megafauna may have been significantly sped up by an asteroid impact about 13,000 bp
    (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070924172959.htm)

    My point is that habitats are always changing, and will continue to do so whether we are here or not.

    I would argue that we have always lived in “balance with nature” because there is no other option. And yes, our distant ancestors were every bit as uncaring of the environment as we have been. For example, the collapse of the Mayan “golden age” was almost certainly caused by environmental exhaustion, and they were unable to produce sufficient food despite having almost all arable land under cultivation.

    But changing an environment is not the same as destroying it. The areas of Mesoamerica that the Maya farmed have returned so completely to jungle that we still find sizable settlements that have been swallowed up, including cities that housed many thousands of people. It also now appears that vast areas of the Amazon basin were under cultivation until the native populations were wiped out by European disease, but the area recovered so completely from the cultivation that we couldn’t even see it until we looked very closely. So it appears that environments are more resilient than they are often given credit for.

    I agree that we need to stop habitat encroachment. This is primarily a problem of the developing world, as the rapidly increasing populations are there. Education and technology are vital. Studies have shown that the strongest correlation to decreased family size is with education and reduced infant mortality, not availability of contraception, although there is a weaker correlation there. (Reproductive health in Africa: issues and options, edited by Barbara Janowitz, JoAnn Lewis, Nadine Burton and Peter Lamptey. Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, Family Health International, 1984. :35-40).

    The estimates I’ve seen put the peak human population at about 9 billion, which is unarguably a whole lot of people, but is well within the carrying capacity of the planet, especially with modern food production techniques.

    Our ancestors undoubtably forever changed the ecosystems of the planet, but that is not the same as destroying them. We will almost certainly continue to change them as well, but at least we have the advantage of being aware of our impact on the environment in a way our ancestors never were. Unless we are willing to cull our numbers significantly (read: kill a whole lot of people) the only practical way to achieve some reasonable equity with the other living things on the planet is with the use of technology, and advanced technologies such as those discussed in this article show great promise toward that end.

    Nice use of bold, btw.

  17. Brainspore says:

    I want my hamburger tree.

  18. Roku says:

    #27/Danlalan: I believe we agree substantially. I do, however, take exception to a couple implications:

    “But changing an environment is not the same as destroying it. [...] So it appears that environments are more resilient than they are often given credit for.”

    That is only true when we don’t drive species to extinction. North America used to be a far more diverse large-animal habitat than the Serengeti is today, featuring multiple species of elephants and mammoths, lions, jaguars, sabertooths, giant short-faced bears, multiple kinds of horses, cheetah-like cursorial hyenas, giant ground sloths, and who knows what – until humans showed up and killed everything except the bison. (The “glaciation extinction of North American megafauna” theory seems bizarre, given the long series of previous glaciations that did not result in mass extinction.)

    Also, yes, 9 billion is within the human carrying capacity of the planet…but with what quality of life? Sure, we can all agree to eat soy paste and never go anywhere, but then what is the point of being alive?

    Also, I’m pretty sure that, given the catastrophic decline in all major fauna to date, that a 9 billion human future involves extinction of all the predators I mentioned (lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas), plus much of the remaining megafauna (rhinos, hippos, elephants). Remember, 9 billion of us, less than 70,000 of all the big predators combined – and still falling catastrophically, in the case of lions.

    And what stops us at 9 billion? Assertions of a “top-out” in population beg the question: what will cause this “topping out”? Will we magically get smarter and solve the problems we refuse to face today? If so, why not solve them today, while there is something left to save? And if not, then what external agency will force us to? Answer: war, famine, pestilence, unimaginable suffering.

    So again the answer is: we must get started now, because every day we wait means more suffering in the future.

    Finally, you say: “Unless we are willing to cull our numbers significantly (read: kill a whole lot of people) the only practical way to achieve some reasonable equity with the other living things on the planet is with the use of technology,”

    This is false. We can simply stop reproducing at greater than replacement rate. No killing required – in fact, much less killing and suffering will occur, because people won’t be constantly starving in areas too ecologically poor to support them.

    And, as we both agree, the best way to accomplish that is to support education and equal rights for women.

  19. danlalan says:

    Far more species have gone extinct than have ever lived.

    DOH!

    I meant to say: Far more species have gone extinct than are alive today.

  20. Stefan Jones says:

    #5: Your hamburger tree wants you.

  21. danlalan says:

    @bjacques

    That’s an interesting question. We would need to induce meiosis in stem cells and give them a nice cozy place to grow into full sized roe…I’m thinking it’d be easier to drive the stem cells into producing an ovary and letting the ovary produce the roe. Of course, to keep the ovary alive you’d probably need to have at least a significant portion of the rest of the sturgeon, or maybe brave new world-ish vats full of sturgeon ovaries.

  22. MossWatson says:

    “…we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us”

    “The planet is in danger, and nature needs help.”

    such unbelievable delusion and arrogance.

  23. MossWatson says:

    @Cicada

    you’re saying that just because something is eventually going to die we should have no concern for it in the present?

  24. MossWatson says:

    @Bugs:

    you said, “We’ve been moving on from what nature gave us for decades already. Arguably millennia”

    no, I’d say about 10,000 years, but we haven’t been moving away from nature – just deluding ourselves into believing that we’re not subject to it’s rules. You’re examples are all very “small picture”.

    @Roguemodron:

    you said “Humans merely endanger their own survival, but the planet would be just fine without us.”

    Tell that to the 200+ species a day who are going extinct. This is definitely not just about humans.

  25. danlalan says:

    you said, “We’ve been moving on from what nature gave us for decades already. Arguably millennia”

    no, I’d say about 10,000 years

  26. danlalan says:

    Human beings (or what passed for human back in the day) have been modifying stone as tools for about 2 million years, have had control of fire for about 500,000 years, and have been doing (really nice) art for at least 35,000 years. All of these constitute a departure from “nature”.

    As for the planet being in trouble…life has survived supervolcanos and miles-wide asteroid strikes (that would incidentally kill us if they happened now) it’ll probably keep going after we are long gone.

    It is good to be concerned. It is also important not to overstate your case.

  27. Anonymous says:

    The estimates I’ve seen put the peak human population at about 9 billion, which is unarguably a whole lot of people, but is well within the carrying capacity of the planet, especially with modern food production techniques.

    This is oh so full of fail.

  28. Cicada says:

    @25 Mosswatson- Dude…how long do you think that complex web is going to last in its current form even if there’s no human intervention at all? Sooner or later, probably within 10 million years, damn near every critter you see meandering around is going to be extinct, replaced by some slightly different variety of critter. It’s all transient, right down to the trees and the bugs.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Oh this is all so arrogant!

    Don’t you people know the path to happiness is to forget about your own physical well-being and dote over your ten or twelve kids while they’re young and healthy and cute and energetic? And if some of them are sick or deformed, hey you’ve got eight or ten good ones right? Nature knows best.

    And even if they’re all doomed to the same destiny as you of spending the whole second halves of their lives pissed off about their own decaying bodies and minds, that doesn’t have to bother YOU. Just forget about them when they turn 30 and watch your cute GRANDCHILDREN instead! This works forever, trust me.

    Until the food runs out.

  30. das memsen says:

    I realize we’re not going to stop knowledge from increasing. I just wish wisdom hadn’t been left behind a couple of thousand years ago in the process.

  31. Bugs says:

    MDH:
    Yep. DNA has code, meta-code and meta-meta code. Some of it is just encoded in the letters, some is just structural, some seems to be both. The more you delve into molecular biology, the more awe-inspiring our bodies become. here is a nice video of DNA replication with atomic-level detail (although skipping a lot of DNA’s 3D conformation and associated proteins), and this is a TED talk from a medical illustrator with an amazing video of various molecular processes within a cell. Watch, then consider that trillions of these these astonishing, elegant machines are running in your body right now, and will never stop while you’re alive. Biology is awesome.

    Mosswatson:

    Know any diabetics? They’re alive because of genetic engineering (Insulin used to come from pig pancreases, at huge expense and risk of disease; now the protein is produced by huge vats of bacteria GMd to express human insulin). Anyone in the last generation or two of your family crippled by polio, blinded by measles, killed by tuberculosis? Say thanks to vaccine and antibiotic technologies, which rely heavily on genetic engineering. Ever eaten a banana? They’re an artificially cloned monoculture with a rigidly controlled genetic makeup.

    It’s not just that we don’t have to accept what nature has given us. We’ve been moving on from what nature gave us for decades already. Arguably millennia if you count the selective breeding that gave us large, sweet fruits, sheep that can’t run very fast and cattle that produce lots of milk.

    You might not approve of the “homebrew” biology outside of properly controlled conditions (I have some misgivings myself), but don’t kid yourself that GM is some new evil.

  32. ecloud says:

    I never did think Gattaca was very scary. The privacy invasion and discrimination that it showed in everyday life was creepy, yeah, but I don’t see how the very natural desire to have perfect children (modify your own genes to make them better than yourself) would necessarily lead to that kind of world. I think the future is collectively in our hands and if we don’t want to live in that exact dystopia, we don’t have to create it.

    What will be scary though will be the accidents that cause future plagues. And it seems inevitable. Just look at what happened with “killer bees” (they are on their way to displacing other types of honeybees) and imagine something much more threatening… but, there’s no way to stop that train so let’s hope the good outweighs the bad, I guess. Maybe we’ll have to develop a planet-wide “immune system” to protect from those threats.

  33. Anonymous says:

    “I say: evolve, and let the chips fall where they may.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club.

    Why do humans always have to control everything, and keep on creating new problems while doing so?

    Cheers,

    Metin

  34. Cicada says:

    @30- It hasn’t. However, you mainly get wisdom from making mistakes.
    Oddly enough, some people hate the thought of mistakes so much they’d be willing to do nothing rather than risk making one. What this does to the development of wisdom, well…

  35. danlalan says:

    We can simply stop reproducing at greater than replacement rate. No killing required – in fact, much less killing and suffering will occur, because people won’t be constantly starving in areas too ecologically poor to support them.

    There is nothing simple about it. The peak population estimates are not numbers that have been pulled out of the air, but rather are generated by observed reproductive rates, observed changes in reproductive rates, and best estimates of future trends. These numbers have been revised downwards almost every time a new estimate is made because of improvements already achieved. These The estimates are freely available, please look for yourself.

    If you have suggestions for getting the reproduction rate down faster than the already massive efforts underway, please share. People have large families because they want to ensure that some survive into adulthood. As infant mortality drops, so do family sizes. Education works by making people desire more for themselves and their children than tradition can supply, which leads them to greater investment in fewer children. Both of these depend on technology to be successful.

    Fortunately for all of us, great strides have already been made in the areas of education and technological improvement in developing countries.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng
    /hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html

    You say that I am wrong when I assert “Unless we are willing to cull our numbers significantly (read: kill a whole lot of people) the only practical way to achieve some reasonable equity with the other living things on the planet is with the use of technology”. I think you are not being realistic.

    The 9 billion population number seems pretty solid, which means that unless you want to see the massive loss of current habitat you fear, we need to figure out how to have both 9 billion on the planet and leave sufficient habitat to prevent the worst of the dieoffs. If you have a way to do this without the use of advanced technologies, please, please tell us. As my dear departed granny used to say “if wishes were wings, bullfrogs wouldn’t bump their asses when they jumped”.

    Oh, and separately, you state:

    “But changing an environment is not the same as destroying it. [...] So it appears that environments are more resilient than they are often given credit for.”

    That is only true when we don’t drive species to extinction. North America used to be a far more diverse large-animal habitat than the Serengeti is today, featuring multiple species of elephants and mammoths, lions, jaguars, sabertooths, giant short-faced bears, multiple kinds of horses, cheetah-like cursorial hyenas, giant ground sloths, and who knows what – until humans showed up and killed everything except the bison. (The “glaciation extinction of North American megafauna” theory seems bizarre, given the long series of previous glaciations that did not result in mass extinction.)

    Are you really saying that the environment that Europeans (falsely, I agree) saw as a pristine wilderness upon arriving in North America was in fact a desolate wasteland destroyed 10k years or so before? And why did you bring up the largely discredited glaciation theory of extinctions?

    I again say change, not destruction.

  36. vjinterkosmos says:

    I’m glanding MDMA and what was the military-industrial complex?

  37. Moriarty says:

    It should be stressed that the maximum sustainable human population on Earth is not a fixed number, but dependent on technology (among other things). In our “natural” state (which is itself kind of meaningless, since we “naturally” make tools and modify our surroundings), our ecosystem could’t support more of us than it could any other large tropical omnivore, many orders of magnitude fewer than we are currently capable of.

    As for the woeful “but at what quality of life” talk, give me a break. If it worked like that, our lives would long since have been not worth living. Yet in most ways I’m much better off than a medieval monarch. Weird!

  38. danlalan says:

    The estimates I’ve seen put the peak human population at about 9 billion, which is unarguably a whole lot of people, but is well within the carrying capacity of the planet, especially with modern food production techniques.

    This is oh so full of fail.

    These are not my estimates.

    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007830.html

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/world-population-forecast-to-peak-before-2100-664281.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

    http://www.pollutionissues.com/Pl-Re/Population.html

    http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2009/07/fao-say-global-food-production-needs-to.html

    If you have better information, please share. “Oh so full of fail” is not much of an argument.

  39. mdh says:

    I can’t believe so many of you think we’ll handle synthetic biology more elegantly than we’ve handled petrochemicals, nuclear energy, or gunpowder.

    First, as always, we will use it as a weapon.

  40. slugabed says:

    It will start first as a method to allow the parents to pick the gender of their unborn child. Next it will be to remove genetic predispositions to diseases. Next will be to improve intelligence and improve the strength of the body.

    As much as we like to talk about “should we?”, someone will. And that someone will wield an advantage. And if that advantage allows greater power to those who have been modified, then it will become an unavoidable arms race a la Gattica.

  41. Roku says:

    #20/Danlalan:

    The dates have actually been pushed back due to recent research. Earliest evidence of hominid use of stone tools is back at about 2.5Myr, and evidence of campfires is back to about 1.4Myr.

    (This means that the article is wrong when it says “Then, about ten thousand years ago, our ancestors began to gather in villages, grow crops, and domesticate animals. That led to stone axes…” Stone axes are Acheulean, which means over one million years old.)

    And for those who think pre-industrial humans lived in mystical balance with nature, the evidence is heavily against it. Read Megafauna – First Victims of the Human-Caused Extinction

    My concern is not that this technology exists (because we can’t stop it from existing). It’s that we will use it to simply pack more and more humans onto the planet, resulting in lower and lower quality of life for all of us, and continuing extinction of the few animals we haven’t yet extirpated.

    Example: Every single lion, tiger, cheetah, leopard, and hyena in the world could have their own seat in the Superdome. (Source: IUCN Red List population estimates.) Lion population has dropped from 200,000 to 20,000 (yes, by 90%) in the last twenty years, due to increasing population in Africa encroaching on their habitat.

    Habitat preservation is the only way to keep other animals alive – but if we continue to pack more and more people onto the planet, habitat preservation is impossible.

    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make malaria medicine – but it means we need to also work on unglamorous issues like equal rights for women and cheap, effective, universally available contraception. Otherwise we are no better than our distant ancestors who destroyed the entire American, European, and Asian ecosystems, and we will destroy forever the few remaining scraps that we haven’t already destroyed.

  42. Anonymous says:

    “He envisions a much larger expansion of the discipline, engineering cells to manufacture substances like biofuels. ”

    Um, so he ‘envisions’ this, brilliant. Haven’t scientists been engineering algae to produce oil for 20 years or so?

  43. Keneke says:

    > While biological engineering will never “solve every problem we expect it to solve,

    I hate to sound overly optimistic, but why? I can think of nothing that can’t conceivably be tackled, assuming there’s no mind-brain boundary we cannot cross.

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