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?

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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 2:14am

    This should be conducted very, very carefully. I mean I don't believe in a scenario like "I am legend" where some man produced dna goes haywire and makes humans start killing each other but what about a lethal virus, bacteria? We must not let our fears hinder the development of such tool but we must be very, very careful.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jan 2015 @ 2:18am

    I smell an Island of Dr. Moreau scenario soon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jan 2015 @ 4:13am

    T-Raptor anyone?

    I am going to order up a mix between a Velociraptor and a T-Rex called the T-Raptor. Don't worry, I will keep him on an island behind a big, electric fence.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dan J., 13 Jan 2015 @ 4:17am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jan 2015 @ 4:47am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jan 2015 @ 5:30am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Dan J., 13 Jan 2015 @ 6:15am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jan 2015 @ 6:24am

    "There are some doors that were never meant to be opened."

    Or this phrase that I think should be enshrined in every lab in the world in solid gold: "Just because you can doesn't mean you should!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Spaceman Spiff (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 6:36am

    Just thrilled!

    Doctor Frankenstein would be thrilled! Just think, "It lives! It lives!" - oops.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jan 2015 @ 6:52am

    customized killer virus ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 8:00am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jan 2015 @ 10:12am

    Even beyond all of the other good reasons not to do this, there's a reason that we think poop smells. It's a hint to leave it alone - it's not food. Do you really want a litter box that smells like bananas and a toddler in the same house?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 10:49am

      Re:

      "Do you really want a litter box that smells like bananas and a toddler in the same house?"

      Why not? Toddlers already tend to be fascinated by ordinary catpoop-scented litter boxes anyway, and parents should already by arranging their living environment such that their toddlers can't get to the litter box.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Get off my cyber-lawn! (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 12:48pm

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Pronounce (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 1:14pm

    I Need a Patent Quick

    Quick tell me where I can get a patent for myself, before someone sues me because I'm using their sequence in my DNA?

    I financially can't afford to be patented trolled.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jan 2015 @ 7:34pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2015 @ 10:08am

    I don't worry about playing god. I worry about what will happen if we don't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 2:36pm

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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