There is an interesting article on Synthetic Biology in last week's New Yorker. Though I just gave it a skim, and didn't read the ending – the topic is intriguing and describes a field of science devoted to developing the capacity to build and manipulate biological systems as if they were Legos. According to SyntheticBiology.Org their goals begin with identification of the parts that “have well-defined performance characteristics and can be used (and re-used) to build biological systems” and end with “reverse engineer and re-design a ‘simple’ natural bacterium."
Wow. Should they succeed, they’d bear a hefty biological, ethical, environmental responsibility. Were these people nut jobs? Nascent Frankensteins? Or were they just being realistic about the future of their science? As I thought about what this all meant it dawned on me that Synthetic Biology, being an extension of Genetic Engineering, in some ways wasn’t so different or separate from nanotechnology.
I don’t mean that they’re similar in how the products of these technologies interact with living systems, all threats of “grey goo” (a worst-case scenario hypothesized by Eric Drexler, popularizer of nanotechnology, whereby nanobots run a muck, literally mucking up the world) aside - one science proposes to build biological systems while the other builds chemicals. Although, I suspect, as time goes on these two technologies will mingle if not marry (if they haven't run off to Las Vegas and done so already.) Biological systems after all are nothing more than chemical building blocks – so once those building blocks are better understood, and once we have the capability to not only engineer one cell at a time, but also to build chemicals one atom at a time, why not?
As a toxicologist observing the emergence of nanotechnology it has been easy to ask what nanotechnology can learn from past practices of chemical production, regulation, use and disposal. But beyond toxicology, biotechnology, has also laid some groundwork as to how to proceed with – or not-- development of a new technology that will impact all of our lives for better or worse, in ways we cannot fully understand.
Genetic engineering, the cornerstone of biotechnology, has been around since 1972 when scientists including Paul Berg of Stanford University first recombined pieces of DNA – the molecule which holds the secrets of all live on earth. Two years later, Berg and others raised serious concerns about unfettered recombinant DNA research, eventually calling for a temporary moratorium on certain types of research. Berg’s committee proposed that, “…until the potential hazards of such recombinant DNA molecules have been better evaluated or until adequate methods are developed for preventing their spread, scientists throughout the world join with the members of this committee in voluntarily deferring the following types of experiments....” the authors then listed specific research that they considered most risky, acknowledging that…”our concern is based on judgments of potential rather than demonstrated risk since there are few available experimental data…and that adherence to our major recommendations will entail postponement or possibly abandonment of certain types of scientifically worthwhile experiments.” A year later, the first conference on “Recombinant DNA molecules” widely referred to as Asilomar for the idyllic conference center by the sea, took place, and is still referred to, and reflected upon as a model of “self-regulation” by the scientific community (the meeting included scientists from around the world, lawyers, government officials and journalists as well.)
Of course the concept of self-regulation may be an oversimplification since the conference purposefully focused on health and environmental safety only. The ethics and legalities of recombinant DNA were not on the agenda, “This choice of agenda,” wrote Berg years later, “was deliberate, partly because of lack of time at Asilomar and partly because it was premature to consider applications that were so speculative and certainly not imminent.” Perhaps. I imagine, like my district’s school committee meetings which I’ve sometimes referred as “adults behaving badly” – if we stuck with the nuts and bolts rather than the deeper questions – we too might be more successful.
Berg revealed one other key to success on at a symposium celebrating the 25th anniversary of Asilomar: molecular biologists weren’t yet heavily invested in the science and the public knew very little – so that there was still room for fluidity in the conversation. Positions on the recombinant DNA were not yet “hardened,” and scientists were primarily academic. This was a time when government funding was flush, when there was separation of academia and industry and the biotechnology industry with all its promises of the next million dollar drug was more “Jetsons” than reality.
Which brings me back to nanotechnology - a field developing under incredible public, government, and scientific scrutiny. Even industry, as I’ve read and heard, wishing to avoid the genetically modified foods fiasco (which is either ironic or inevitable considering Asilomar), seems willing to tread carefully when it comes to development of nanomaterials. A recent report by the DEEPEN (Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies) project – emphasizes a role for increased public participation in governance decisions related to nanotechnology development. In part because nanotechnology is poised to affect everyday life – so why not include all participants -- those who deliberately participant and those who are incidental nano-tourists in the conversation?
There's one caveat to suggestions by DEEPEN and others. There have been so many meetings, and project reports on how best to move forward conscientiously with nanotechnology, that there is some concern there’s too much talk and too little action. Meanwhile, nanomaterials find their way into more and more consumer products (1000 and counting,) and the body of research papers continue grow like a bacterial culture in log growth phase. But that's no reason not to broaden the conversation.
Perhaps comparisons between nanotechnology and Asilomar are unfair for nanotech.
As Berg noted, in 1975, neither Joe Public nor Joe the Plumber were invited members of the 'Recombinant DNA steering committee,' the focus of the meeting was strictly focused, and recombinant DNA was, and still is fairly easily defined. Isolating and rejoining segments of DNA – that was recombinant DNA. Today we have the world wide web of information where the public, if they wish can be informed, NGOs following and reporting on nanotechnology, a technology that is already in use, and scientists who can’t even agree on what constitutes a nanoparticle. Are they particles with one dimension measuring 100 nm or less? Or, should they be much smaller, encompassing particles in the 30 nm or smaller range, particles most likely to exhibit new and different physical-chemistry?
Then there are nanodots, nano-metals oxides, nanotubes and other nanos – all very different chemically although they may share some basic properties in terms of size, or increased reactivity as a result of decreased size, but how much do we know of their differences in terms of how nanoparticles will move and react inside a living being, or outside in the big wide world?
Our best hope right now, is that nanotechnology as a field is still young and flexible. Hopefully the talk with turn to action before nanotech’s arteries begin to harden before, as Berg observed twenty-five years after Asilomar – the issues become “chronic.”
(For the results of a recent poll on public understanding of nanotechnology and synthetic biology click here. )