by Andre on 24 February 2008
The third part of the Edge series “Life: What a concept!” is now online. This one is a talk with Drew Endy, a bioengineer at MIT. Despite existing for 30 years, we still haven’t realized much of the promise of biotechnology and Endy believes this is because we haven’t invested enough in making versions of biological systems that are easy to engineer.
America, 1860, machinists are building objects, steam engines, what have you. Nuts and bolts that hold together machines are specific to the particular machine shop that manufactures them. What that means is, if you buy some machine from a machine shop in Newark, New Jersey, and it breaks down in Chicago, you have to send it back probably to that specific machine shop, with the machines set to tool things on a particular set of designs in order to get the replacement part or to get the thing fixed.
In April of 1864, somebody says, enough; William Sellers of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia gives a paper on a system for nuts and bolts. And he proposes the Sellers Screw Thread Standard […].The consequence of this today is, when I go to the hardware store and get a nut and a bolt, so long as they don’t screw up the English/metric thing, I can take those two objects, and I can put them together. I don’t have to do an experiment. I don’t need to go talk to some Harvard professor to figure this out. I don’t need to do a controlled experiment to see if my first experiment worked. I just get the two objects and put them together.
So, Endy wants to do the same thing with biology. He draws an analogy with the development of computers that might convince you this is exciting. Computers went from large machines run by scientists to personal machines owned by large numbers of non-scientists (not necessarily non-experts!) that are programmable by anyone with time and motivation. Currently, synthetic biology is being done largely by big labs run by scientists, but engineers are also starting to take part, and according to Endy their different approach will yield many more benefits in the long term. I assume this passage is about Craig Venter, but please correct me if I’m wrong:
If you make biology easy to engineer, and you make it accessible, by definition people will learn about it, and write comic strips about it. You can talk to computer programming conferences about it, and it’s a different world. It’s a very different world from going around claiming that you’ve created life. It’s a very different world from going around filing patent applications that say you have invented the idea of a synthetic genome. It’s a very different world from going around and spending $40 billion on a classified biological defense facility, at the site of the past U.S. Offensive Biological Weapons program. And so there’s a cultural mismatch.
Again with the cultural mismatch. One group arguing that intellectual property needs to be controlled to be taken advantage of and the other arguing that new tools need to be open to everyone to be taken advantage of. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I suspect it won’t be the case that one approach dominates but that we’ll end up with aspects of both coexisting for a long time, as is currently the case with open source and proprietary software.
Regardless of exactly how it develops, expect big changes in our ability to control biological systems and expect significant parts of biology to be reduced to information science, the same way significant parts of electrical engineering have been reduced to information science.