09 July 2007

After Synthetic Biology: Comes the Plague?

Synthetic biologists such as Craig Venter, are optimistic about their future. They believe that once they have mastered the art of forcing nature to do their will, the good life will follow--for everyone.
Synthetic biologists, as they survey all the new genes and control elements whose DNA sequences are now accumulating in data bases, seem to feel extraordinary power is almost within their grasp.

“Biology will never be the same,” Thomas F. Knight of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory wrote recently in describing the new engineering discipline he sees as emerging from it.

....“Grow a house” is on the to-do list of the M.I.T. Synthetic Biology Working Group, presumably meaning that an acorn might be reprogrammed to generate walls, oak floors and a roof instead of the usual trunk and branches. “Take over Mars. And then Venus. And then Earth” —the last items on this modest agenda.

Most people in synthetic biology are engineers who have invaded genetics. They have brought with them a vocabulary derived from circuit design and software development that they seek to impose on the softer substance of biology. They talk of modules — meaning networks of genes assembled to perform some standard function — and of “booting up” a cell with new DNA-based instructions, much the way someone gets a computer going.

The first practical applications of synthetic biology may not be so far off. “The real killer app for this field has become bioenergy,” Dr. Collins says. Under the stimulus of high gas prices, synthetic biologists are re-engineering microbes to generate the components of natural gas and petroleum. Whether this can be done economically remains to be seen. But one company, LS9 of San Carlos, Calif., says it is close to that goal. Its re-engineered microbe “produces hydrocarbons that look, smell and function” very similarly to those in petroleum, said Stephen del Cardayre, the company’s vice president for research.

Synthetic biologists are well aware that, like any new technology, theirs can be used for good or ill, and they have encouraged open discussion of possible risks at their annual meetings.

One possible danger is bioterrorism.

Bioterrorism. For western scientists looking for all the good things in life for themselves and others, bioterrorism is not first on their minds. Yet for hundreds of millions of religious fanatics and apocalyptics, the possibility of ending man's reign on earth offered by a perverted synthetic biology must be too strong to resist.

Most of us simply do not want to think about it. Why not simply dwell on all the good things biotech, nanotech, advanced computing, robotics, and molecular fabs will bring to our living rooms and workshops? Why think about a potential hell when we could be thinking about a potential utopia?

Because we like to think about the apocalypse. There is no apocalypse like a "plague apocalypse." Remember 12 Monkeys, or 28 Days Later? How about the classics Earth Abides, No Blade of Grass, or Andromeda Strain?

In a plague apocalypse, the victims can die as long and as painfully as the author desires. Victims can even pass into a zombie state to prey on survivors and the uninfected. Or instead of humans dying from plague, they can die from starvation when diseases attack food crops--destroying the entire food chain from the bottom up.

The White Plague is a revenge tale, about a scientist who loses his wife to terror and embarks on a far more lethal campaign of terror himself. Why not? Scientists are as human as anyone else. Anyone who has not witnessed the passion of a scientist probably just doesn't know any scientists very well.

The point is, synthetic biology makes synthetic plagues--aimed at people or plants--possible. And given the rampant religious apocalyptic fanaticism that possesses the young burgeoning populations of certain countries, it is likely that many of these fanatics will take up biological science as a profession. In other words, it will happen if we let it.

What will our world be like if we get sloppy, and allow the secrets of synthetic plague to slip into the hands of fanatic apocalyptics? To visualize that, you must use your imagination. Reading some of these books might help. Or you may want to read some of these. After all, apocalypses share many consequences among them.

Facing these possibilities is what organisations such as the Lifeboat Foundation and the Society for Creative Apocalyptology are all about.

It is not inconceivable that the future will belong to the city-state, rather than to the nation-state. A city-state can trade with other city-states and with the surrounding countryside, but is more defensible than the nation-state--having shorter borders.

The US-Mexican border will not keep out a deadly plague. Neither will the long border of the Mediterranean Sea between much of the third world and Europe. Chinese military officials have threatened to devastate the US west coast with nuclear weapons, but why bother when a simple microbe will do even more damage?

Round the world cruises and air travel are custom made for spreading deadly plagues. It is quite possible that we will look back on these days as a time of extraordinary freedom to travel and experience the world. In the future, many unknown perils wait.

This is not a time for academic lobotomies or psychological neotenates. It is a time for teaching children basic skills of living and survival, as a matter of course. Think of life in an orbiting colony or on a moonbase. Think of how children would have to be raised in order to deal with the deadly hazards existing right outside the door.

Then start thinking realistically about what life on Earth could easily be like in a decade or two. And stop wasting generations of human life by dooming them to incompetent neoteny and frivolous helplessness.

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Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

I like this post because it contains more original thinking, and less quoting from external sources.

Monday, 16 July, 2007  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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