Regulating Synthetic Biology: Does Freedom Of Speech Apply To DNA Letters?

from the democratizing-creation dept

Techdirt has written often enough about applications of DNA sequencing — the elucidation of the four chemical “letters” A, C, G, T that go to make up genomes. But things have moved on: the new frontier is not just analyzing DNA, but synthesizing it. A fascinating article on SFGate describes the activities of one company working in this area, Cambrian Genomics, and some of the tricky ethical issues it raises:

In Austen Heinz’s vision of the future, customers tinker with the genetic codes of plants and animals and even design new creatures on a computer. Then his startup, Cambrian Genomics, prints that DNA quickly, accurately and cheaply.

“Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game,” Heinz said. “And that creates a whole new world.”

The 31-year-old CEO has a deadpan demeanor that can be hard to read, but he is not kidding. In a makeshift laboratory in San Francisco, his synthetic biology company uses lasers to create custom DNA for major pharmaceutical companies. Its mission, to “democratize creation” with minimal to no regulation, frightens bioethicists as deeply as it thrills Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

Printing the new DNA is the easy bit; increasingly, the hard bit is deciding what should — and shouldn’t — be printed:

Right now, employees check each order to make sure that a customer isn’t printing, say, base pairs of Ebola. But staff won?t have time to do that if, as Heinz predicts, orders dramatically increase in the next two years. In that case, he said, Cambrian might first ship the plates to an independent facility where experts would put the DNA inside cells, film and analyze it, and make sure that it is safe before releasing it.

This facility, he envisions, could be run by another company, not necessarily the government. Because Cambrian wants to keep government interference to an absolute minimum, its CEO insists that behaving well is in the company?s best interest.

That may be true, but as this technology spreads, and becomes cheaper, more and more companies around the world will start to offer similar services, making it harder to oversee their working. And then there will be the backstreet labs that intentionally try to avoid any kind of control. Soon, if you can model it, you will be able to synthesize it. Cambrian Genomics is already helping to drive the spread of its tools and ideas:

Cambrian will also share its technology with startups in which it holds a 10 percent equity stake. One is Petomics, which is making a probiotic for cats and dogs that makes their feces smell like bananas. Another is SweetPeach, which hopes to take samples of users’ vaginal microorganisms and send back personalized probiotics to promote vaginal health. (Contrary to Heinz’s description of SweetPeach at a recent conference, the products will not make vaginas smell like peaches.)

Heinz seeks to help create “thousands” more startups in this vein. On top of that, he wants to replace lost limbs, fight viruses and develop alternatives to antibiotics. Maybe someday, he said, scientists will even print DNA on Mars. “It?s going to be an amazing next few hundred years.”

Given the rapid advances in synthetic biology, that certainly seems likely. The question is: will the next few hundred years be good amazing, or bad amazing? Where — and how — do we draw the line here?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Companies: cambrian genomics

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Comments on “Regulating Synthetic Biology: Does Freedom Of Speech Apply To DNA Letters?”

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Dan J. (profile) says:

Draw the Line?

Where — and how — do we draw the line here?

I think a better question would be are we even able to draw the line? The only way I can see of drawing the line is a nightmare scenario of outlawing any research coupled with draconian enforcement and even that’s almost certain to fail. The technology will be developed, information about it will spread, and it will become easy and cheap enough that individuals or small groups will be able to put their own lab together in secret if desired. How the hell do you draw a line around that?

Anonymous Coward says:

dog poop.. way to go guys...

To quote Idiocracy – “Some had high hopes the genetic engineering would correct this trend in evolution, but sadly the greatest minds and resources where focused on conquering hair loss and prolonging erections.”

So how about personalised probiotic cures for IBS / GERD for an easy one.
Or “virii” that “patch” defective myosin receptors if you really want a challenge.
Or, really, pretty much anything else.

Obviously, stuff like this will come in the future, but the focus that novelty / “dumb” applications like changing the smell of your dog’s shit make me weep for humanity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: dog poop.. way to go guys...

“Proof Of Concept”-aspects are important.

When that is said, the challenge is out there: How do you protect your investment in probiotics? It is very easy to copy and difficult to contain (growing bacteria, protozoa, fungi, plants or vira is relatively easy to learn.)

We are talking Monsanto seed patents times two and that legal situation is very problematic to say the least. I would be very sceptical about letting private companies monetize such a market.

Dan J. (profile) says:

Re: dog poop.. way to go guys...

Obviously, stuff like this will come in the future, but the focus that novelty / “dumb” applications like changing the smell of your dog’s shit make me weep for humanity.

I think that’s kind of like saying “This computer stuff will change the world but thinking of the focus being on applications like ‘Flappy Bird’ makes me weep for humanity.”

It’s not like the technology will be in limited supply. There’s no reason it can’t be used to make dog shit smell like key lime pie and to cure muscular dystrophy at the same time.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Tell me another one

This facility, he envisions, could be run by another company, not necessarily the government. Because Cambrian wants to keep government interference to an absolute minimum, its CEO insists that behaving well is in the company’s best interest.

Right, because having private companies regulate this stuff has worked so well in the past. /sarc

Get off my cyber-lawn! (profile) says:

Am I the only one....

that thinks it just MIGHT be a good idea to examine the product specs BEFORE you make it? I mean, for instance, what if your business model were mixing chemicals and you mixed metal powder, Aluminum & Boron (III)Oxide? Just mix that baby up and ship it off for someone else to find out you just MADE FREAKING THERMITE and burnt a whole town to the ground because nobody in the transportation chain took any precautions.

Yea, what could possibly go wrong?

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s amusing to see the lack of talk about the elephant in this room- doomsday terrorism made EZ. Guess that’s because libertarians like this lunatic hate the govt.and regulation more than they love civilization and our species continued existence.

People will do with this exactly what people do with code- mostly make cool things and make a few viruses and other malware which in this sphere pretty much guarantees our extinction or at the very least the end of civilization.

There, now you’re free of govt.

We can’t make this illegal fast enough. Further, we can’t spend too little finding and neutralizing anyone who wants to freelance this outside of a tightly controlled and heavily guarded environment.

This is the biological version of the grey-goo problem.

Here’s where all this is going- the govts.of the world will, in secret, coalesce on the idea that human beings are, as evolution has shit them out its ass, way too violent, power seeking, irrational and reckless to survive, or to paraphrase Einstein, the diy biological age has changed everything but the human mind.

Consequently, they will commence stealth experiments on humans at all stages of development, in an attempt to create ( or transform a human into) one that doesn’t want to fly planes into buildings, kill unbelievers, torture people at Gitmo or shovel as much of the earth’s goodies into its gullet as it can while fucking over every other human in the process. In short, they will attempt to engineer an inherently pro-social human.

This stealth effort can’t begin too soon. It is the ONLY way we have a future on this earth, where the word ‘we’ actually refers to something decdedly not us at all.

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