On regulation

Rob Carlson had a piece recently in The Scientist (which has been kind enough to notice this Blog in the past) on the regulation of synthetic biology, in part due to the supposed threat from the DIY Bio community. This seems to be part of a continuing hysterical exchange over a non-issue. While Rob does not actively fear monger for dollars, as do others in the community, he does make statements that unfortunately continue to support a view of synthetic biology as a real-world discipline, as opposed to a collective fantasy.

In particular, I take issue with the notion that “There is every reason to expect that garage innovation will be as important to biological technologies as it was to IT ….” Without revisiting my usual diatribe over whether the term ’synthetic biology’ is meaningless, let’s just look at the details of what is possible. Many of the constructs that folks who claim to be synthetic biologists make contain bacterial or eukaryotic promoters regulated by ‘parts’ such as the Lac and Tet repressors, which have been around for years. Many of these constructs could have as easily been made by PCR as by whole DNA synthesis. Many of the outcomes, whether for sensing or immune modulation, have already been embodied many times over in the literature in circuits known as ‘plasmids.’ Again, this comparison is not to necessarily point out the intellectual paucity of the field as to say: if much of this has been possible for over 30 years, then where exactly is the garage culture that is adding to innovation?

Because I am a verified old person now, I remember my initial excitement with cloning, I remember talking with my peers about all the different things we could make, and I remember that we realized that we could maybe do it on our own … except that it would have been way too hard, compared to the just very hard day-to-day labors of a graduate student. The difference between DIY Bio and Michael Dell putting computers together in his garage is the difference between the availability of the raw materials, not the difference between some supposed lack of standardization then and Biobricks now. There is no ‘Radio Shack’ for DNA parts, and even if there were the infrastructure required to manipulate those parts is non-trivial for all but the richest amateur scientist. And, yes, I not only run my own DNA Fab today, I have in the past made a PCR machine from a hair dryer. I know what’s possible, and I know what’s likely, and I know what works. DIY Bio just plain doesn’t work, and if it did we would have had something worthwhile from the hobbyists long, long before this.

There is going to be no stopping regulation, because there is no stopping ignorance. The community has crafted a fantasy construct, the idea that biology has its own VLSI; it has used this construct to fear monger for dollars; and now it gets to reap what it has sown. Various government agencies believe that synthetic biology exists, and that it has consequences different than biotechnology as a whole, and thus that it needs to be regulated. Forget that every grant proposal we put together to maintain our complicated infrastructure for doing synthetic biology has innumerable layers of regulation attached to it, we somehow need even more scrutiny to keep us from doing … what? Exactly what we said we were going to do in the grant proposal?

But can we at least leave out this part of the conversation, the notion that there could be a black market because folks who hook up platinum electrodes to car batteries and pour agarose gels in Play Doh molds might someday actually create a bacteria that converts glucose to gold?

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