Contribute to the discussion on synthetic biology

Last week I mentioned a newly published paper on the creation of artificial DNA. There are also lots of efforts out there working on synthetic lifeforms and the development of a mix & match catalog of parts for them. How far should synthetic biology go, and what kinds of benefits do you think humans will realize from it? Who should be overseeing and regulating the field? Advancements in synthetic biology may (arguably have) outpace the answers to these questions.

Dr. Gregor Wolbring at the University of Calgary is the convener of a team of four undergraduate students that looks into the ethical, legal, social issues of synthetic biology. The “Calgary iGEM Ethics Team” will present their finding at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition iGEM.

The Calgary iGEM Ethics team is the first undergraduate team allowed to look into the ethical, legal, social issues of synthetic biology. The students developed this survey and plan to use this survey as one output for its November presentation.

The purpose of this study is to better understand the level of knowledge you and others have about the emerging field of synthetic biology, what you feel the future of synthetic biology holds, what you feel the implications of advances in synthetic biology may be and what you think the framework of governance for synthetic biology should be.

One definition of synthetic biology is: the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems: and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.

You will be asked a series of questions regarding to the emerging scientific field of synthetic biology, its future, and its governance. You will have to answer 41 questions of the online survey.

You find the survey here:

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the premiere Synthetic Biology competition and currently the largest Synthetic Biology conference in the world. Working at their own schools over the summer, participants use standard biological parts to design, build, and operate biological systems in living cells. During the first weekend of November, they share their work at the iGEM Competition Jamboree at MIT and in competition for a variety of awards for excellence.

They add their new parts to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts for the students in the next year’s competition.

Please pass this information on through your networks so that the students get many responses to the synthetic biology survey they designed. They worked very hard on the survey.

Source: Dr. Wolbring

The survey is long and parts of it could be more clear in my opinion, but if you have an interest in synthetic biology I encourage you to take it.

(via NanoWerk)

A new kind of Frankenfood: the tomato vaccine

Korean scientists have performed some promising tests using GM tomatoes that grow their own edible vaccines. In this case, against Alzheimer’s disease. And why not – the idea’s not a new one (although this guy notes a rather important reason why edible vaccines would be “a disaster” – each tomato would produce a variable level of the vaccine).

We already eat specific foods precisely for their purported health benefits. We’ve created other foods that produce desired substances, for example, the golden rice that produces large quantities of beta-carotene.

Still, something about it makes me leery. Kind of like “meatri” – synthetic meat. I’d know it was real meat, grown by the same biochemical mechanisms that animals use to grow their own meat. But I’d feel kind of hesitant to eat it, at least the first time. There’s a yuck factor.

From my own perspective of course, I also wonder how might this be used as a threat. A vehicle for biowarfare? Well, I imagine there are all kinds of toxins and such that food could be engineered to express. But there would be no reason to go to all that trouble when there are far more productive, established methods to crank out and deliver weapons. So this will no doubt remain in the realm of sci-fi for the foreseeable future. Could make for a great short story, though.

I, for one, welcome our performance-enhanced overlords

Bioethicist John Harris writes a short op-ed here against the backdrop of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently under debate in the UK. The bill deals with embryonic stem cell research and chimeric embryos, among other things, and apparently has people thinking we’ll be growing half-animal, half-human babies, or some such. (I’ll take the little red-headed frog baby with the six legs and the beaver tail, please.)

Harris says that eventually, enhancement technologies will bring on the replacement for the human race. And why not? If we can fix mutations that cause disease, shouldn’t we? If we can grow new eyes for a blind person or new kidneys for someone dying of kidney disease, shouldn’t we?

But people tend to start getting upset when we consider “optional” things (a purely subjective term). This is because we have a long-ingrained and useless cultural fear of playing god. The fact is, we already manipulate our bodies and our behavior every day with all manner of substances that we eat, drink, or breathe. We will soon reach a point where average people will have access to technologies—whether drugs, genes, or physical modifications of various types—that will make us question whether some of us are still human. Harris believes that our ability to modify ourselves signals the end of our familiar brand of human, at least.

While he discusses lots of benefits of our new-found technological powers, he also notes that modifications may spawn injustices (think Gattaca, or X-Men). I agree, that will definitely happen to some degree. Unless we can modify out of ourselves some of our most basic behaviors. Regardless, they can plug me in whenever they’re ready. I’m first in line for an upgrade! I’m thinking maybe wings, and definitely a neural interface for the Internets.

If this topic interests you, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to attend this session at the World Science Festival in NYC.

Update: Here’s another angle from the New Scientist editor’s blog: A human hybrid speaks out

Transgenic sheep are 15 percent human


“Professor Esmail Zanjani and colleagues at the University of Nevada-Reno have created sheep that are 15 percent human at the cellular level. Half the organs in the sheep are human. The idea, of course, is to harvest those organs to transplant into human patients. From the article: ‘He has already created a sheep liver which has a large proportion of human cells and eventually hopes to precisely match a sheep to a transplant patient, using their own stem cells to create their own flock of sheep.’ One scientists worries, however, that the work could lead to new viruses that cross from animals to humans.”

I think the sheep have 15% human cells – they’re not sheep with 15% human DNA.

Anyway, some commenters on the original story at The Daily Mail seem a little disturbed by the idea of transgenic animals with human genes (if you’re just in it for the entertainment, definitely read the Slashdot comments instead). But animals have been created with all kinds of foreign genes from humans to jellyfish to spiders for many years. The guy who worries about hidden pathogens is expressing a valid argument that has been around since the idea of xenotransplantation was first conceived. Early on, transgenic pigs were envisioned as an answer to the demand for organs for transplantation but the fear of hidden animal viruses was a major concern.

This will be overcome, I believe. And by the time I’m old enough for my innards to not be running up to par, I think we’ll either have xenotransplants grown specifically for the individual, or I’ll be able to get a new organ with my own DNA grown in a “printer.” Yes by the time I’m old, I may end up looking like a sea hag (no cosmetic surgery for me!) but I’ll have shiny pink organs fit for a young ‘un. But will I start having an “oinking” tic and an irresistible urge to wallow?

UPDATE: In one of those weird episodes of synchronicity, just as the news story about the transgenic sheep is making the rounds, today PLoS Medicine published the cautiously optimistic paper, Clinical Xenotransplantation of Organs: Why Aren’t We There Yet? (3/27/07)

Terrorist movie plots

What came out of the military’s brainstorming session with a bunch of top Hollywood creative minds after 9/11? As Sharon Weinberger recounts in honor of “Sunshine Week,” The Army told her back in 2004 that the meeting was related to a “vulnerability assessment” and the results were “deliberative” in nature. Working papers (in other words, deliberative) are not automatically subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act, so the contents remain a mystery to this day.

It doesn’t take a genius these days to come up with interesting terrorism scenarios, I come up with them all the time and I’m no genius, just ask my offspring. While some exceptionally simple scenarios might make for a dull movie plot, they’d unfortunately make excellent choices for terrorists. I expect the Hollywood types probably did think up a few exciting blockbuster movie plots, but they also surprised the military with some simple, low-tech, and hair-raising scenarios are no longer viable choices for terrorists. Which means the “sunshine” is not likely to illuminate those scenarios for a very long time.

Just for kicks, here are a couple of ideas for the more fanciful blockbuster movie scenarios. Terrorists…

  • …create a super strain of Toxoplasma gondii, which controls people’s minds and causes an uncontrollable urge to convert to Salafist Islam.
  • clone themselves, thereby avoiding exposure through recruiting activities while creating an endless supply of suicide bombers. Oh, wait, I forgot we already have Palestinians.
  • …develop self-replicating nanobots that generate endless heaps of gray goo that buries military bases.
  • …build suitcase antimatter bombs capable of blowing up areas the size of a state (in my “director’s cut” version they use one on the East Coast).
  • …create a large array transcranial magnetic stimulation weapon that causes people to feel paranoid and aggressive – they use it in large cities and just sit back while we destroy ourselves Katrina-style.
  • …create a “brown noise” weapon that enables terrorists to take over the White House and kidnap the President and Cabinet while the leaders of the free world are busy crapping their pants.
  • …genetically engineer sturgeon that produce “Manchurian caviar,” an addictive, hypnotic delicacy that enables terrorists to gain control over rich and powerful individuals.

Plants to produce bioscavengers

Condensed from EurekAlert - The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University has been awarded one of six research projects worth $2.67 million of a $14.4 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) effort to develop improved antidotes for civilian populations vulnerable to chemical agent poisoning by a terrorist attack. The money will go to the CounterACT (Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats) Center of Excellence, led by David Lenz, PhD, of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) with principal investigator Tsafrir Mor.

CounterACT will focus on the design of human enzymes with new activities to neutralize nerve agents, and “Rapid and Large Scale Plant-Derived Production of Catalytic Nerve-Agent Bioscavengers” – a project utilizing plants to express large quantities of human proteins. In previous work for DARPA, Mor engineered plants to express acetylcholinesterase, and proved that the plant-derived protein is effective in protecting against pesticide poisoning.

The project will continue to explore plant-expressed bioscavengers. “The new candidate bioscavengers we hope to develop are human enzymes that not only bind to nerve agents to neutralize them, but also destroy them,” said Mor,”We can use plants and new technologies developed at ASU to scale-up production to make large amounts of antidote material in a cost-effective manner.”

They’ll research production of butyrylcholinesterase (BChE), which seems to play a role as the body’s vacuum cleaner, degrading drugs and natural products and eliminating them from the body. They will also study another enzyme, paraoxonase (PON1).

Only vanishingly small quantities of such enzymes can be recovered from a human body. Mor, a protein engineering and plant-based therapeutics expert, will initially adapt plants as protein production factories to develop a novel means to biomanufacture catalytic bioscavengers based on the human proteins BChE and PON1. His plant of choice is tobacco and he believes he can create enough enzymes to supply the entire U.S. with chemical prophylactyic/therapeutic products in as little as 100-1000 acres, depending on the protein yield per plant.

Earlier post on bioscavenger human trials here.

Frankenapples? I can’t wait

Researchers at Australia’s CSIRO announced they’ve found the gene that makes apples red. A little tweaking and who knows what apples will look like? Not to mention, the colorful compounds in fruits and veggies are good for you.

For those of us who aren’t afraid of a little frankenfood, meatri, and the like, this just promises to make our fruit bowls a little more interesting in years to come. Blue apples will be cool, but polka dots and stripes would be awesome! Here’s a PDF fact sheet, and the media release.


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