Special Report

The Ultimate Right To Life Debate: Synthetic Biologists Know The Meaning Of Life, But Do They Know The Meaning Of Synthetic Biology?

by Lifeboat Foundation Scientific Advisory Board member Alan H. Goldstein who developed our A-PRIZE.
“When a mutant’s hair starts waving, it’s just waving goodbye” Paraphrased from “Over The Border” by Ken Kesey.

Part 1. Synthetic Biology or Artificial Life?

Hey, going extinct doesn’t have to be a drag. In fact, the opportunities for entertainment are endless… right up until the end.
So let’s begin with a fun, educational multiple choice quiz. Please circle (click on the letters) the correct answers to the question below (note that there can be more than one correct answer).
Synthetic Biology is…
    Part of a larger field of science called Artificial Life.
    A technology that strives to create genetically engineered life forms previously unknown to nature.
    Only engaged in engineering life forms that improve the quality of both human life and the environment.
    Closely regulated by appropriate federal agencies.
    All of the above.
    None of the above.
    Haven’t got a clue.

Haven’t got a clue?! There are many reasons for the current state of confusion in the Synthetic Biology business, but excellent place to start is by examining the logo for the Second International Conference on Synthetic Biology (SB2.0) which took place on May 20–22, 2006, at the University of California, Berkeley. The logo for SB2.0 is a clockwork bacterium, complete with wires, gears, laser beams and even a pilot’s module (one has to wonder who or what is in that module). The “thing” represented by this logo is clearly not biological. At least not if we define biology as a manifestation of nature.
That same old terrestrial story of love and glory. You know, the one where DNA codes for RNA, RNA codes for proteins, proteins build new cells complete with their own DNA and the wheel turns round again. Birds do it and bees do it, but the bacterium represented by the logo for SB2.0 may or may not do it. There might be DNA churning somewhere in those clockwork innards, but the clear message is that we are looking at something completely new. A life form that doesn’t work like the birds, bees, and bacteria. In short, a form of Artificial Life.
So… if the Synthetic Biologists meet under a logo that symbolizes Artificial Life then they must be the same thing, right? The answer is, it depends. Depends on what? Nobody really knows. The motto for SB2.0 could be — “Don’t ask. Don’t Tell. Don’t Really Know. But if anyone has to know… it’s all good baby!”
According to the organizers, the conference “brought together a diverse group of participants from a variety of disciplines, including some of the world’s leaders in biological engineering, biochemistry, quantitative biology … [and] sought to promote and guide the further, constructive development of the field.” By the end of the meeting, two developments came through loud and clear. First, these people are totally serious about creating new “synthetic” life forms. Second, these people are in no hurry to create a regulatory system to deal with the “synthetic” life forms they create or those others create using their methods.
In order to begin to deconstruct Synthetic Biology, this author went to an authoritative government source. According to a website maintained by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “Synthetic biology is the development of well-characterized biological components that can be easily assembled into larger functioning devices to accomplish many particular [emphasis added] goals. The application of such devices promises great benefits in health, clean and renewable energy, and the environment.”
But this definition only heightened my sense of being an oxymoron. If the components of Synthetic Biology are well-characterized, then what makes them “synthetic”. Seeking more information, I clicked down the page to a FAQ sheet from which I learned that synthetic biology refers to both: 1. The design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world. 2. The re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems.
Now we’re getting to the nut. Synthetic biologists will design and fabricate (build, create, grow, brew up) biological components and systems that have never existed in the natural world… and I’m ok with that. But I? having trouble with the part about how something that never existed before can be “well characterized”. I assume this means that they (the Synthetic Biologists) will characterize these things as they make them. Which really means that Synthetic Biologists believe they are ready for anything and everything that can happen when you create something that the world has never seen before.
Now ordinarily, I wouldn’t have a big problem with this assumption. After all, humans didn’t have the wheel until we had it. Likewise, the world can be divided into pre- and post transistor eras. We learn as we go, and we go as we learn. That’s the name of the game in science and technology. Sometimes we miss the mark on the “characterization” thing (the engineers who designed Chernobyl come to mind). But much of the developed world has clearly made the marginal utility calculation that new technologies are worth the inherent danger of mishap they carry with them.
Except now we are talking about life forms… which means the new technology might, in and of itself, be capable of some form of “knowing”. Perhaps even capable of knowing something that we don’t know.
In other words, for the first time in history of technology it’s not about us and “it” but us and “them”. Let us entertain you, say the Synthetic Biologists. Let our new “things” make you smile. Your life will be prolonged, enriched, and thrilling. We offer you technology that has truly come alive, just like in the movies. Except that in the movies our destiny is well defined and our fate revealed… even when it is complete gibberish.

Part 2. When Technology Comes to Life in Our Dreams

“I think we live in over-stimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake.”, says Nicki Brand, a radio pop psychologist with a talk show called the “Emotional Rescue”. Brand, played by Debbie Harry (from the pop group Blondie), is being interviewed on network television along with Max Renn (James Woods). Renn owns a small cable television station that specializes in soft core pornography.
When Nicki admits that she too craves stimulation, Max invites her on a date. Nicki likes to increase her sexual bandwidth via foreplay punctuated with small stab wounds. But Max is ready to up the ante by introducing her to Videodrome, a pirate television broadcast his technician just unscrambled.
The story line of Videodrome consists entirely of the torture, mutilation, and murder of naked, helpless human beings. Squat, muscular executioners in the traditional black hoods of their profession drag hysterical “contestants” onto the “set”, a small dank room with moist organic-looking walls. There is no dialog save the horrific vocalizations of agony, as each victim/star is bound, beaten, whipped, and electrocuted. Now that’s over-stimulation! Nicki wants to audition for the show. Max feels more ambivalent… but he can’t stop watching.
The real kink is that underneath the Videodrome “carrier wave” is a hidden transmission that causes fundamental mutations in the viewer? brain resulting in the growth of new organs. This can occur, explains media prophet Professor Brian Oblivion (presumably an evil autonomic incarnation of Marshall Mcluhan), because television has become the “retina of the mind’s eye”. “Soon” prophecies Oblivion, “we will all have new names that make the cathode ray tube oscillate.”
Videodrome, a 1982 movie written and directed by David Cronenberg, is both prescient and pedestrian. Cronenberg’s obsession is the techno-metamorphosis of humans into new, preferably monstrous, forms. In films like Rabid (1977), Scanners (1980), and — of course — his remake of The Fly (1986), metamorphosis is brought on by dysfunctional technology.
In Rabid, the proximate cause is an experimental skin graft. In Scanners, the culprit is a pharmaceutical intended to ease difficult pregnancies but, instead, creates mutants capable of powerful and dangerous forms of telepathy. The real-world inspiration for Scanners was probably the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) administered during pregnancy from 1950–1971 to decrease incidence of miscarriage but found to increase the incidence of vaginal carcinoma in female children. Cronenberg found the perfect vehicle for his passion with the biotechnology-driven plot of The Fly, in which Jeff Goldblum accidentally integrates the DNA of Musca domestica into his genome and begins to molt into a horrific Chimera.
Of course these are very, very old games David is playing. Humans have dreamed of metamorphosis, for better and worse, since the beginning of consciousness. Substitute cloning for immortality, or F-16s for chariots drawn by winged steeds. The plot never changes, only the tech specs.
In 1950 Cordwainer Smith (a.k.a. Dr. Paul Linebarger) wrote the classic sci-fi story “Scanners Live in Vain” about a distant future where people can only survive space-flight in stasis. The “Great Pain” of Space is fatal to conscious humans so ships are piloted by Scanners: men who have volunteered to die and then be re-animated via the “Haberman Process”.
True cyborgs, they can now connect to and constantly scan the controls of interstellar spacecraft that sustain the commerce and stability of a far-flung human empire. The upside, of course, is that Scanners have great power and are held in the highest esteem by society (any similarity to the Navigators Guild in Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably no coincidence). And, like the Guild, Scanners have a confraternity (a union really) that is capable of exercising control over the empire because without them (as they chant at the end of each meeting)… no ships go!
The cyborg heart of this story is the battle for the human “soul” of the Scanners. While in machine-mode, Scanners have little connection with ordinary humans but are allowed to briefly revisit their old life through “cranching”: a reverse-Frankenstein procedure where the Scanner is strategically wrapped with wire then zapped by electricity, shorting out the implants to allow a few hours of human feelings. But going “under the wire” is physically dangerous. The clear implication is that cranching, transitioning between the cyborg and human states, can also cause a Scanner’s non-personality to fragment. So use of the wire is highly restricted by the Scanner hierarchy.
The struggle to save these cyborg souls is focused on one Scanner’s love of a woman. This conflicted man-machine is both Scanner and husband. In fact, he is the only married member of the confraternity. Love of a woman creates, ipso facto, the constant desire to go “under the wire”. Because he lives in both worlds our hero is unwilling to participate in a plot to kill the scientist who may have invented an autopilot that will make Scanners obsolete — will make Scanners live in vain.
One can easily guess what chance the allied forces of a cold, mechanical world have against the power of love. In the end Cordwainer Smith provides a literal Deus ex machina. The inventor is saved by the love-struck cyborg and, once the existence of the new technology is confirmed, virtually all the Scanners joyously go through a reverse Haberman process to regain their sacred humanity.
In Cordwainer Smith’s modernist world, biology and technology march into the future hand-in-hand. Our post-modern world, replete with Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life is marching to a completely different destination.

Part 3. How Do You Know When You Are Speciating If Your Best Friends Won’t Tell You?

Redneck mutant by Andy Jones

One of the greatest difficulties in explaining nanobiotechnology is the deeply embedded concept that when humans merge physically with their technology they become cyborgs. While the science fiction genre has an amazing track record with respect to predicting future technologies, this is one time when even the greatest minds got it wrong both in form and function. Sci-Fi tales of techno-morphing generally come in two flavors.
The vanilla plot requires that new powers go to the few who, in turn, intend to use them to conquer and/or dominate the many. The mad scientist as Vanilla the Hun.
The chocolate plot requires that new powers be shared equally by all. The mad scientist as Christ passing out chocolate-flavored silicon wafers to all.
The problem, of course, is that these flavors were formulated by people, whereas biological life was originally cooked up by an inhuman chef named chemical imperialism (CI for short). Far more complex dishes were created by CI’s army of protégés operating out of the Evolution Cafe. We hardly understand how these recipes are whipped up, much less exercise any real control over what goes on in the kitchen.
Even so, for several billion years the forces of evolution have produced an ever-changing menu that is both composed of and consumed by biological organisms. Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life are both manifestations of Nanobiotechnology and Nanobiotechnology is about to create an irrevocable rupture in the food chain.
One way to fight the cyborg myth begins with an objective assessment the state of human evolution today. What, precisely, is on the menu? In the 21st century, humans may be operationally defined by access (or lack of access) to technology. Do you still carry your water home from the stream in a bamboo bucket, or do you simply turn on a faucet? Do you accept the loss of your teeth as a natural process or do you expect, even insist that they be replaced? When your heart stops beating is your life over, or is it assumed that someone in your immediate environment will dial 911?
The answer is… it depends. It depends on who you are. It depends on where you live. Which is a roundabout way of saying that, ultimately, it depends on the ecological niche you occupy as an organism in a diverging population whose access to transformative technology displays an enormous amount of variation.
Let’s try on a working hypothesis: Suppose we are rapidly approaching the point in time where the people of Earth may be divided into two subpopulations with diverging ecological niches: one niche offers routine access to transformative technology, and one does not. By transformative technology, I mean tools capable of creating synthetic ecosystems beyond the current state of biological evolution.
Technology that can do far more than cause water to flow uphill. How about putting it in a jet and serving it to 300 people (along with an extremely small bag of peanuts) at 37,000 feet while traveling at 500 knots per hour. Methods to install a third, fourth, or even fifth set of adult teeth. The availability of replacement parts for a (physically) broken heart: a new mitral valve, a cardiac stent, or an artificial pacemaker. And, if one counts biopharmaceuticals, even replacement parts for a heart that has been broken emotionally.
Of equal importance, the subpopulation whose niche contains transformative technology considers such access more or less routine. A smaller group within this subpopulation even considers such access as an inalienable right. Much of the back-story of Joan Didion’s best-selling book The Year Of Magical Thinking is really about the shock encountered by the author when she abruptly encountered the current limitations of her niche.
We might call this entire new subpopulation, i.e. those who expect access to transformative technology and those who demand it, “technically enabled Homo sapiens”. The other subpopulation could be called, well… “good old Homo sapiens”. In Darwin’s world (a.k.a. the world of biological evolution), when a subpopulation fully diverges in this manner it is called speciation. And, if Homo sapiens, were just like any other biological organism it would be reasonable to posit that we are undergoing speciation right now. A speciation that would end with part of the human population breaking off to become cyborgs: that hybrid creature we have all been programmed to expect as our next incarnation.
Except that we are not destined to become cyborgs. Thanks to nanobiotechnology, our metamorphosis will be far more radical and profound. Something that’s never been seen before in four billion years of biology. Something that has only been conceivable for the last fifty years or so.
An amount of time so small as to be completely invisible when measured against the back-story written over thousands of millennia of biological evolution. But in order to understand just how radical and profound our nanobiotechnology-based future will be, we will need a brief review of how evolutionary speciation works for a normal population of biological organisms. We need to see what we will NOT become before we can visualize the nature of our true metamorphosis. The metamorphosis predicted by the First Law of Nanobotics (see article I, Nanobot).

Part 4. The 4 Billion Year Old Game Called Evolution

In September 1835 Charles Darwin went ashore on the Galapagos Islands where he observed and collected specimens of small birds. Some of these birds appeared almost identical while others looked quite different. But when he got back to London and had time to examine them more systematically, he realized they were all closely related species.
Through careful correlation of the distinctive physical attributes of specific birds relative to the distinctive conditions on their home islands, Darwin was able to deduce that almost all the differences, whether slight or great, appeared to improve a particular birds’ ability to obtain food from it’s particular environment. For example, on Daphne Island, the species fortis had a strong, thick beak for cracking nuts and seeds; while on Santa Cruz Island the species scandens had a narrow fine beak to feed on insects hiding in small crevices.
These birds, of course, are Darwin’s Finches. As famous in the world of evolutionary biology as Jerry Garcia is in the world of Deadheads. They ultimately led Charles Darwin to propose the theory of natural selection. Over thousands of years, an original bird population had diverged.
First they diverged physically by flying off to different islands in the Galapagos. Then they diverged physiologically by accumulating favorable mutations that encoded changes in body size, beak shape, etc. Each of Darwin’s Finches had speciated to adapt to environmental conditions on its particular island. Across the millennia, random genetic variation followed by natural selection, created subpopulations with physical traits that increased success in obtaining food under the conditions on a particular island, i.e. in a particular environment.
This subpopulation was more healthy and active than other finches trying to live in the same environmental niche on, say, Daphne Island. Most important, because this subpopulation was better at extracting food from its ecological niche (e.g. cracking seeds with tough coats or prying insects out of narrow crevices), it had the energy for a more vigorous sex life and produced more offspring so that — finally — individuals within this subpopulation stopped having sex with anyone lacking these positive mutations. Speciation had occurred!
In evolution-speak, this new species displayed enhanced “Darwinian fitness” which simply means the ability to pass one? DNA along to one’s offspring. In the world of biology, the species with the greatest Darwinian fitness wins.
But what do you win when you win at Darwinian fitness? This game, whose other name is evolution, is played on the field of Earth… which is nowhere exactly the same.
For example, in the Southwestern United States, there is a region of Earth called the Sonoran Desert. On the Sonoran Desert, hawks have won the daytime sky, while the Diamondback Rattlesnake and the Coyote have won the arroyo floor when the night falls. Each has achieved superior adaptation to their specific environmental niche through random variation followed by natural selection, a.k.a. biological evolution.
So the world of biology, as it has evolved across billions of years, is a complex matrix of interlocking ecosystems. Each ecosystem is subdivided into an even more complex matrix of “niches”. Looking “up” (in terms of global value), the Sonoran Desert is one of the five major desert ecosystems of North America which, in turn, is a component of a continental land mass. Our continent, in its turn, is integrated into the planet’s biosphere through its effects on weather patterns, watersheds that flow into the oceans, gas exchange with the atmosphere, etc.
Looking “down” (on the same scale) the Sonoran Desert’s biosphere is composed of biomass (the sum of its life forms), specific geological properties such as its soils, and of course its weather (especially rainfall). The Desert’s biomass is subdivided into plants, animals, insects, and microbes. Living things interact with each other and the land, water, and sky that delineate their physical world. Each organism, be it the Giant Saguaro Cactus or the Kangaroo Rat, inhabits some part of this ecosystem but not the rest. They each have their niche.
Biological organisms with superior evolutionary adaptation dominate their ecological niche and thereby achieve Darwinian fitness. Dominant animals live in the best homes (largest trees, safest caves), eat the best food (fattest mice, biggest berries). Most importantly, they have the best sex. Best as in most frequent and most productive. Perhaps their orgasms are better too. It only seems fair. But regardless of such anthropocentric hedonistic considerations, they pass more of their DNA into the future which makes them winners in the game of Darwinian fitness.
For four billion years or so, biology has played the same game with an ever-changing cast of characters (leaving aside the question of “Punctuational Evolution” which is a theory where the same equipment may be used to play a somewhat enhanced version of the game). Because of the integration of living organisms and the physical world they inhabit, change in one creates change in the other.
Across geologic time rainfall patterns change which, in turn, changes the vegetation. Herbivores (plant eaters) that dominated a region covered with lush grass die out when the region becomes arid and covered with salty shrubs. A large predator adapted to pursue this herbivore loses its niche as well. And so it goes.
Or should I say “so it has gone” up until the 21st century as recorded in the continuous history of western civilization. Because the four billion year old driveshaft of biological evolution is about to snap.
For thousands of millennia, it has been about random variation followed by natural selection in a biosphere composed of myriad ecological niches. But, as those of you who have been following my series of articles in know, Homo sapiens the toolmaker has finally made the tool that will bring down the kingdom of biology.
That tool, of course, is nanotechnology. Not a single tool per se, but rather a quantum leap in our ability to produce the tools of toolmaking which, in turn, has literally transformed our concept of what a tool is. And (oh the Promethean irony) this quantum leap has landed us in the same toolshop used by… you guessed it, evolution.

Part 5. Is “Technicide” a Form of Natural Selection?

The First Law of Nanobotics explains precisely why, in the post-nanotechnology era, human evolution will not involve Darwinian fitness. Which is the same as saying in the post-nanotechnology era humans will not evolve, or even qualify, as biological organisms. I have outlined the forces that will dominate this era in the previous essay, I, Nanobot The most important factor is summarized by the First law of Nanobotics which says: The fusion of nanotechnology and biotechnology, now called nanobiotechnology, will result in the complete elimination of the barrier between living and nonliving materials.
For the sake of brevity the term nanobot is assumed to include all molecule-sized devices regardless of the materials from which they are fabricated. In many cases, we will build nanobiobots, hybrid devices composed of both biomolecular and nonliving materials: protein and silicon, DNA and PMMA (Poly[methyl methacrylate]).
Hopefully it will come as no surprise to learn that people working on Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life are really in the nanobiobot business. It is crucial to recognize that, if it is fabricated with the appropriate capabilities, a single nanobot or nanobiobot (i.e. a single molecular device) can qualify as a life form.
Before there were Homo sapiens, before there were tools (which preceded human beings by millions of years), before there were even cells… the basic unit of biological life on Earth was the self-replicating molecule: a molecular machine built with atomic precision whose sole function was the assembly of additional (often identical) molecular machines. Since our definition of nanotechnology is the ability to build molecular machines with atomic precision, biology is, and always has been, about nanofabrication.
Darwin’s Finches speciated via modification of the biomolecular machine that programmed their growth and development. This machine was (and still is) called DNA. The dominant birds accumulated mutations to their DNA that enhanced their fitness.
Most of these mutations involved the conversion of a single “base” (A,T,G, or C) along the DNA strand. This was accomplished by, literally, moving a few atoms around. No single mutation — say A for G, or T for C — would be enough. But over time, the molecular machine accumulated dozens or perhaps hundreds of such changes and, at some point, changed enough so that the trait it encoded began to manifest differently in the physical world. The beak got noticeably longer, or thinner, or stronger.
Yet for all its power and beauty, Darwin’s world is over! This is the incredible yet inevitable outcome of the successful implementation of nanobiotechnology. This is not the first, or even the second time some of you have heard me say this. And each time, a certain percentage of readers can be counted on to respond with a studied “been there, done that” ennui.
“So what,” they say, “just another gloom and doom prophet of techno-destruction. What’s the big deal?” And I, in turn, have tried in various ways to show why nanobiotechnology is not just one of the “usual techno-suspects”. Not just another member of the global warming — rainforest clear cutting — nuclear waste ocean dumping — ten tons of missing Soviet era weapons grade smallpox gone missing — black market plutonium for dirty bomb making — kind of techno destruction. And why?
Answer: all these other candidates for the technology-most-likely-to-end-the-world have the same modus operandi: they are all killers. They will bring about the end of our world via destruction of biological life on Earth.
Nanobiotechnology differs from every other technology-most-likely-to-end-the-world in the most basic and fundamental way. It’s M.O. involves creation rather than destruction. Via Synthetic Biology, Artificial Life, and various composites of the two, nanobiotechnology will bring about the end of our world by birthing another!
For billions of years, biology has survived innumerable harbingers of death and destruction. But in these billions of years biology has never seen, much less survived, a true harbinger of creation. That is what makes nanobiotechnology completely different. What makes it so powerful is its ability to substitute entirely new forms of chemistry into the game of life.

Part 6. Why Biology Gets an F in Chemistry

Why should we fear Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life? Why can’t we be friends?
Because biological life forms are, in effect, chemical imbeciles! We have only learned to perform a few dozen types of chemical reactions. Hydrations and dehydrations (the addition or removal of water from a chemical compound). Redox reactions (adding or removing an electron from a chemical compound). And a limited repertoire of related transformations such as aminations, deaminations, and esterifications pretty much fill up nature? biochemical bag of tricks.
This should come as no surprise to those of us who remember that over ninety percent of the human body is made up of just four elements (65% Oxygen, 10% Hydrogen, 18% Carbon), i.e. water, Carbon, and various combinations and permutations thereof. In fact, biochemistry employs, at most, a few dozen chemical reactions. By reaction, I mean oxidation, dehydration, and so on. Whereas there are literally millions of reactions available to the world of chemistry. As I said, chemical imbeciles, present company included.
So the logical question is… if we’re so stupid how come we’re here? This is evolution’s inverted version of the adage “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” The answer, to this question is sequential. First we are here by luck, but luck as defined by opportunity meeting preparation.
We now understand that that the first life form was a self-replicating molecule so that all evolutionary adaptations, no matter what size the organism, are ultimately molecular. Based on this knowledge the reasons for the limitations of biochemistry become obvious.
After taking (say) a hundred million years to learn a new class of chemistry, an evolving primal organism is going to use it for all it’s worth. It is going to try this reaction out on everything it is made of and everything it bumps into. For the next million years or so, it will run (swim, undulate) around saying “Hi, want to get oxidized?” Actually, this will not be a request.
Now trying to oxidize every compound in your world is not the most intelligent way to proceed. Unless your strategy is — you guessed it — random variation followed by natural selection. In that case, the randomly trying to oxidize every compound in your world makes perfect sense.
The overwhelming majority of compounds will simply refuse to be oxidized. A few compounds will undergo oxidation, prove to be useless or (worse) toxic. This latter case will result in the death of that particular member of the population and perhaps a few others (or a million others if it’s a population of bacteria). But at the last, there will be that one compound that, when oxidized, imparts some type of adaptive advantage. Members of the population lucky enough to oxidize that particular target get a boost in Darwinian fitness and we all know what that means. After a suitable while, there is an entire population with a new oxidative trick in its evolutionary bag. Then the whole process begins again, i.e. the random oxidation of everything in the newer, larger world available to those organisms who have stepped up to the next level of molecular fitness.
Over thousands of millennia, molecular evolution has meant wringing every last drop of fitness from each new type of chemical reaction as it appeared. Usually, this appearance would result from a mutation in the genetic code for an existing enzyme or protein. One time in a million, this mutation changed the shape of the protein to create a new catalytic surface. Then, one time in a million, the mutated organism lived long enough to use it on a useful compound. A trillion failures or more to learn one new chemical trick?! Is it any wonder that the repertoire of biochemistry is so limited? And is it any wonder that each new trick is used in every possible way?
As a result, we have hundreds of related “oxidase” enzymes, called superfamilies. Likewise, once the cell evolved the ability to add phosphate to organic compounds, it started adding it all over the place. Finally, an enzyme evolved that could phosphorylate other proteins. Today we call this a protein kinase.

Part 7. Why Synthetic Biology Will Get an A in Chemistry

Unlike natural organisms, the things engineered by Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life will not operate by trial and error and will know no inherent limitations to their chemical repertoire. Synthetic Biologists will, in general, use the tools created by evolution (DNA, proteins, etc.) but put them together in entirely new ways. Artificial Life (AL) strives to create nonbiological systems that exhibit some of the behaviors and characteristics of natural living systems… but also many,many new ones.
Synthetic Biologists, Artificial Lifers, and everyone else in this business (and you had better believe it’s an enormous business) want just one “thing” from biology. The trait that means so much to so many of us. The heart of the matter, so to speak. They want their “things” to be alive.
To be alive, the products of Synthetic Biology and/or Artificial Life must incorporate the three absolute principles of living system: self-creation, self-organization and self-propagation. And, pay close attention here, we are not (definitely not) talking about events that only take place inside somebody’s CPU! We’re in the real world now baby and I don’t mean MTV.
Synthetic Biologists plan to keep their creations alive using the same tricks developed by evolution over the past four billion years or so, but reserve the right to modify these biomolecules as necessary. Artificial Lifers think they can use different materials (nonbiological molecules such as silica) to accomplish the same end. Usually, this is where the “Horta” jokes start so if you think the AL folks are kidding feel free.
The goal of both SB and AL is blatantly on display in that logo I mentioned at the outset: a hybrid, clockwork bacterium. The nonbiological, clockwork components make this bacterium, by definition, at least part artificial life form… yet it is proudly displayed as the emblem of a meeting dedicated to Synthetic Biology. Go figure.

Part 8. Just Remember… It’s All Good Baby

The bottom line is that terms like Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life have not been rigorously defined and, in fact, it will be impossible to separate these two manifestations of nanobiotechnology. As a result, the ethical and ecological implications cannot be rigorously defined, much less debated. The only rigor to be seen is the scientific rigor going into the creation of Synthetic Biology (or is that Artificial Life). Ah well, it’s still nanobiotechnology to me.
The blasé attitude exhibited by Synthetic Biology researchers is difficult to understand. It’s not like these “biohackers” don’t realize that every tool they develop is “dual-use” (at least). Techniques that can engineer bacteria to eat oil spills can also engineer them to eat human flesh. Genes for “metabolic circuits” can be created that program cells to produce biofuels or biotoxins.
To make matters worse, Synthetic Biology is no where near as esoteric as it sounds. “Visionary” scientists like Craig Venter have garnered world-wide publicity and acclaim for promoting the development of technology that will lower the cost of whole genome sequencing to the level of an iPod within a decade and to the price of a latte within a generation.
There are equally optimistic predictions about the invention of cheap, effective methods to synthesize large fragments of DNA: the stuff metabolic circuits are made of. These efforts are being conducted around the world so that, without a serious concerted effort now, future regulation will be impossible.
On the other hand, the only thing more dangerous than a sanguine Synthetic Biologist may be a safety-conscious Synthetic Biologist. In a recent issue of Science magazine, one proposed biosafety “strategy” under consideration by Synthetic Biologists is to “alter synthetic genetic codes such that they are incompatible with natural ones because there is a mismatch in the gene’s coding for amino acids.”
Whoa pardner! This might be a safety precaution but, if something goes wrong (or right if you happen to be a Synthetic Biology-enabled misanthrope), we may end up dealing with a “class-infinity” biohazard. Biohazards are usually rated on a scale of 1–4 with 1 being harmless and 4 being reserved for “dangerous and exotic agents which pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease” e.g. the feared Ebola Virus.
But what numerical rating do you give a pathogenic organism that has “alter[ed] synthetic genetic codes … that … are incompatible with natural ones…”, i.e. a pathogen whose genome has never been seen before on Earth?!
The First Law of Nanobotics provides a general warning against underestimating the potential of Synthetic Biology and Artificial life by stating that nanobiotechnology will result in the complete elimination of the barrier between living and nonliving materials. That statement goes double for synthetic materials that share the same chemistry as the natural ones. The Second Law of Nanobotics explicitly states: It is not possible to ensure that devices created using the techniques of nanobiotechnology will only transmit or receive molecular information as intended by its human designers.
Put simply, if you design and build a molecular device programmed to “speak” the language of biochemistry, it is possible that it will also “hear”. If your device is designed to “hear” it may also “speak”. The simple reason being that, for molecules, speaking, hearing, and ultimately learning are all of a piece. The same chemical reaction may be a form of speech in one venue, and a form of hearing in another. Ultimately that same reaction can form the basis of chemical intelligence (a term attributed to Bertrand Russell) in any venue.
It is crucial to remember that in the pre-Watson & Crick era of the 20th century, many eminent biochemists thought DNA was too stupid (chemically speaking) to be the genetic basis of life because it only had four bases!
It may be far too early to adopt any specific code of conduct with respect to SB and AL research. But what is truly amazing is that, in the end, the scientists attending SB2.0 could not even come up with some type of unified declaration of concern about the need for one.
But then again, it’s all good baby.


Dr. Alan H Goldstein is a university professor of biomaterials engineering who also writes about the near-term consequences of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and hybrid progeny such as synthetic biology. The opinions in this essay strictly reflect the personal views of the author.