On apologetics

Well, the University of Texas iGEM team just returned from its first appearance in several years. They did great, and I’m mostly proud of them. They worked on engineering a micro-organism that could eat caffeine. Unfortunately, they somehow became mired in controversy, even though I wasn’t there. It seems that they had the unfortunate gall to suggest to their betters that things might be done differently. As we all know, education in general, and the iGEM in particular, are not about student input as much as they are about student obedience and obsequiousness. Students should understand that the process of entering a field, such as synthetic biology, is really more about how you present yourself to established members of the community, not about your own thoughts or aspirations. I mean, seriously, what are we teaching students if we teach them to think for themselves?!? Chaos! Madness! Students might actually begin to understand that they have the power to change the world themselves, rather than operate through comfortable systems of privilege until they can, through sufficient bowing and scraping, reach the point where they are the ones that are determining who is and who is not a synthetic biologist, and who is or is not making a true advance. Didn’t we already learn this with the great English public school system? Haven’t we made it abundantly clear through avatars like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell that it is only by conforming to the rules that real change can be accomplished?

In any event, while I am generally proud of the team, I did think it was appropriate to make a public apology for their rude behavior. The contretemps started when they foolishly pointed out to the group as a whole that perhaps Biobricks were not the most useful method for the generation of synthetic genetic circuits, especially when cheap DNA synthesis and Gibson assembly were so readily available. Now, obviously, they didn’t know their place! The great advantages of Biobricks in the synthesis of the Mycoplasma genome, for example, are well-known, and can be further attested by the large numbers of publications that are brought up when the term is searched in PubMed. Eight! Eight publications, by God! Oh, wait, two of those are Keasling’s BglBricks, and one looks like some manner of review …. Well, anyway, Biobricks rule! Especially compared to Gibson assembly, which just because it’s more widely used and vastly easier doesn’t make it *better.*

And so, a bunch of punk-ass students had the temerity to suggest that perhaps an international competition and showcase, which they stupidly thought was about science (hahahahaha), should perhaps use better scientific tools, or at least have input on such scientific tools. Such insolence had to be put down, and fortunately the judges were right there to do so. Not by refusing to advance the team to the Finals (there were some pretty kick-ass and awesome projects ahead of caffeine-eating bugs), but by using the formal and approved network of scientific review: Tweets (like Blogs, except shorter!). Karmella Haynes from ASU wrote the following after hearing from our snot-nosed brats:

That’s telling them! God forbid that students should think their opinions matter, that they can be scientists without having received the imprimatur of the synthetic biology community via the use of Biobricks and the favor of their superiors, the judges.

Now, these kids, they’re such crazy idealists. If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart, and if you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a shotgun, amiright? They actually had a slide (which mercifully the judges did not ask to see) in which they thought they rationally set out some reasons for a different standard. It included, in part:

“…unfortunately it was rejected due to multiple illegal restriction sites. Our assembled operon came from a 13 kb segment, a size that will almost invariably contain illegal sites. In smaller constructs, it may be viable to change these sites, but as iGEM projects become more ambitious in size and scope, this becomes less and less feasible. And now, since we have Gibson assembly and other next-gen methods, the traditional assembly standards have become unnecessary, and mutating away restriction sites has become a waste of time, and we have been thinking about ways to improve it. Is it time for a new standard?”

Madness! And totally unnecessary, as it turns out. In communications with Randy Rettberg, we learned that “We [clearly the royal we] have been aware of Gibson assembly for several years.” Oh, good! Whew! The Biobricks universe and its eight publications can now give its imprimatur to that upstart who helped build an entire fracking genome (Battlestar Galactica has saved me approximately $765 / annum in the swear jar).

Now, cooler heads will undoubtedly say that it’s perfectly appropriate to have standards for an undergraduate competition, and that it levels the playing field for folks from other countries, like, I dunno, Slovenia (what’s that? Slovenia is a powerhouse? And regularly kicks ass at the competition? Dammit, when did it happen that the United States isn’t the best at everything?!? Well, at least we invented Biobricks!). That makes complete sense, it would be like trying to have young scientists do actual science, rather than an artificially constrained semblance of science.

Anyway, it just seemed that it was appropriate for me to pen this apology, not on behalf of the team, which generally stays out of my way if at all possible (I do keep wondering why so many people avoid me, hmmm), but on behalf of Texas. It’s all that frontier-mentality, bigger-and-better, secede-from-the-Union crap that we listen to down here. I know, I know, you’re ready to be rid of us, anyway, and if we’re really, really lucky and humble and stuff, people will be nice enough to let us stick around, both in the United States and at the iGEM competition.

Nawwww. We’re Texas. Get used to it.

- originally posted on Friday, November 9th, 2012