Category: Synthetic Biology

Cross-posted from Risk Sense This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science. Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application. Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted: BIG DATA   Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum. Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include: High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated; “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being; Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline. CLOUD HEALTH, or C-HEALTH   Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant

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Sometimes you read a science article and it sends a shiver tingle down your spine.  That was my reaction this afternoon reading Ed Yong’s piece on a paper just published in Nature Biotechnology by Janna Nawroth, Kevin Kit Parker and colleagues. The gist of the work is that Parker’s team have created a hybrid biological machine that “swims” like a jellyfish by growing rat heart muscle cells on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane.  The researchers are using the technique to explore muscular pumps, but the result opens the door to new technologies built around biological-non biological hybrids. To get a sense of what Parker et al. have achieved, it’s worth watching this video of the “medusoid” in action – the movement comes about by a single layer of heart muscles grown on the substrate contracting synchronously as an electric field is applied to the liquid. For a more detailed account of the research, I would also recommend reading Ed Young’s excellent piece, and the original paper. What particularly intrigues me here is the fusion between the biological and the non-biological.  While synthetic biology has typically focused on manipulating organisms through designer-DNA, this more practical approach to engineering biology could go a long way very fast – even before genetically engineered components are added. In the case of the machine above, the result is a relatively functionless entity that moves when an external voltage is applied.  But it wouldn’t take much to engineer in a self-contained voltage source and pulse regulator, and maybe some control elements – fueled by further hybrid biological components.  What you end up with is an engineering construction kits for biological machines that could be as attractive to the DIY bio community as mainstream technologists.  With the addition of genetically designed components, this is likely to be

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For the past few months, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has been working on identifying some of the most significant trends in technology innovation.  Published yesterday by WEF, these represent ten areas that we as a council felt are likely to shake things up over the next few years in terms of their economic and social impact. The plan is to update this assessment on an annual basis Here’s the list: Informatics for adding value to information The quantity of information now available to individuals and organizations is unprecedented in human history, and the rate of information generation continues to grow exponentially. Yet, the sheer volume of information is in danger of creating more noise than value, and as a result limiting its effective use. Innovations in how information is organized, mined and processed hold the key to filtering out the noise and using the growing wealth of global information to address emerging challenges. Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering The natural world is a testament to the vast potential inherent in the genetic code at the core of all living organisms. Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into this potential in unprecedented ways, enabling the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes – whether converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs or protecting the body against harm. Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet, the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new

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The fifth Hart survey of what American adults think about emerging technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology was released today by my former colleagues at the Woodrow Wilson Center – the first since I left the group earlier this year. Each summer for the past five years, the Wilson Center has commissioned Hart Research Associates to poll around 1000 adults via telephone on what they’ve heard of nanotechnology, and what they think about it.  in 2008, we started to introduce questions on synthetic biology.  With three years’ worth of data on synbio, it’s still too early to quantify trends.  But some indications of where awareness and perceptions are going are beginning to emerge. This was going to be a potentially interesting year for the survey, given J. Craig Venter’s announcement earlier this year of the first living and reproducing organism with an artificially constructed genome earlier this year.  I say potentially, as it’s hard to tell from the figures whether this event had a significant impact on the data presented – while 24% of adults polled recalled hearing something about the breakthrough, there was a smaller increase in the number of people who’d heard about synbio between 2009 and 2010, than there was between 2008 and 2009. The full report from the survey can be accessed here, so I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of the findings.  But I did want to highlight one or two things that caught my attention. Awareness of synthetic biology Since the first survey including synbio in 2008, awareness of the technology has been increasing (see below)

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While the DIY Biotechnology community has grown considerably since this post, the piece still captures something of what is still a young movement, and one that challenges assumptions about top-down technology innovation. Originally posted June 13 2008 Read Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” or Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, and you get a glimpse into how the hacker culture that emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century revolutionized the digital world.  Will a confluence of emerging technologies—including information tech, biotech, and nanotech—lead to a similar revolution in the biological world?

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Last week’s announcement from the J. Craig Venter Institute that scientists had created the first-ever synthetic cell was a profoundly significant point in human history, and marked a turning point in our quest to control the natural world.  But the ability to use this emerging technology wisely is already being dogged by fears that we have embarked down a dangerous and morally dubious path. It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough. This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House.  But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

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A guest blog by Hilary Sutcliffe, Director of MATTER, a UK think tank which explores how new technologies can work for us all. The other day, I wrote a piece on the implications of synthetic biology where I  suggested that we “need to place discussions on a science basis, and not get over-distracted by ethical hand-wringing.”  It was a bit of a provocative statement – intentionally so – so I was pleased to see Hilary Sutcliffe pick up on it in the comments and push back against the implication that the ethics of synbio might not be as important as some think.  Given the relevance of her comments, I thought they deserved their own guest blog – so here they are – AM. “Ethical hand-wringing”?  Hmm, I don’t think you were quite meaning this as I have interpreted it Andrew, but I have to disagree with your point in your Synthetic Biology Blog on the ethical hand-wringing, I think we should be distracting ourselves quite a lot with Ethical Hand-Wringing while the scientists are getting on with creating their new organisms, especially considering ‘what we understand is secondary to what we can do’, as you said. I was at the Royal Society’s Synthetic Biology Stakeholder meeting which was shown by BBC Newsnight last week, (my Mum and I spotted me fleetingly in the corner!) and this and other recent synbio events gave me many a déjà vu moment – had I accidentally gone to a nano meeting? There are many similarities between the development of genetic modification (GM) and nanotechnologies which can be learned in the development of synthetic biology.  Time is of the essence – GM and nano were pretty much already in the shops when we started to take action, but here perhaps we can get our act

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Typical.  One of the most anticipated technological breakthroughs in years hits the streets, and I’m completely off the web – holed up in an Italian hotel with no internet and no phone. I’m talking of course about J. Craig Venter’s team’s breakthrough in synthesizing a living organism, almost from scratch – published in the journal Science on Thursday and speculated on by everyone from Nobel laureates to Vatican officials since…

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Ten years ago at the close of the 20th century, people the world over were obsessing about the millennium bug – an unanticipated glitch arising from an earlier technology.  I wonder how clear it was then that, despite this storm in what turned out to be a rather small teacup, the following decade would see unprecedented advances in technology – the mapping of the human genome, social media, nanotechnology, space-tourism, face transplants, hybrid cars, global communications, digital storage, and more.  Looking back, it’s clear that despite a few hiccups, emerging technologies are on a roll – one that’s showing no sign of slowing down. So what can we expect as we enter the second decade of the twenty first century?  What are the emerging technology trends that are going to be hitting the headlines over the next ten years? Here’s my list of the top ten technologies I think are worth watching. I’m afraid that, as with all crystal ball gazing, it’s bound to be flawed. Yet as I work on the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies, these do seem to be areas that are ripe for prime time.

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By George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment, and the Center for Food Safety A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series Andrew asked us to write about “how technological innovation should contribute to life in the 21st century.”  Technological innovation is often blindly referred to as “progress.”  The question is — progress towards what? We live in the age of technology.  In past generations, most people spent the majority of their time in nature, and then in later years more often in social settings.  In the modern world, most of us spend an ever-increasing amount of time in an interconnected web of machines.  I’d like to say I’m writing this on a riverside, but unfortunately I’m not – I’m in my office typing on my laptop, with my email open on a different web browser. What currently drives this technological innovation, this technological bubble that defines our age?  In modern society, self-interest, greater productivity, greater consumption, the laws of supply and demand and the commoditization of the world are all drivers.  This economic system, which has now succeeded in global hegemony, dictates all our social interactions. Far from being a natural state of being, it is of course only as old as the United States (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776) and not based on any natural law.

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Part 6 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century The story so far: We are facing an unprecedented confluence of three factors that are forcing us to rethink how we develop and use science and technology to the benefit of society.  Coupling between our action’s and the Earth’s re-actions is more significant now than at any previous point in human history. Global Communications are dissolving previously rigid boundaries throughout society at a seemingly ever-increasing rate.  And then there’s the third “C” – Control…

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So you’re looking for a new technology concept—something that will stimulate research funding, make a buck or two, and maybe save the world—at least for another year or so.  What do you need? Here’s a quick checklist: Something that’s revolutionary. Evolutionary change doesn’t hack it these days I’m afraid—your new technology needs to make a distinct break from the past—or at least, look as if it does. Hype—and lots of it. A vision for how your technology will transform the world over the next ten to fifty years.  If you can argue that civilization will collapse without the new tech, so much the better. A focus on interdisciplinary research. Stove-piped technologies are so last century.  To be hip and relevant in the 21st century, you need to be interdisciplinary.  Fusions of two disciplines are good—more are better though.  And if you can throw in a social science or two, better still. Inter-agency collaboration. You know you are on to a winner when one government agency alone can’t cope with your idea. An education crisis.  As a rule of thumb, your new technology should be so out of the box that a whole new approach to education is needed to develop and sustain it. Heartfelt concern for the possible downsides of the technology. Safe technologies aren’t sexy.  Period.  Actually, that’s not true, but there is an implicit assumption that any bold new technology concept will have a dark side—acknowledging this and working out how to handle it early on is de rigueur for the budding technology entrepreneur. An intent to engage “the public.” Breathe easy—current evidence suggests that you don’t actually need to talk to “the public,” just act as if you want to.  Of course, this approach may end up backfiring if you don’t move on to your next big

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A five-minute primer on the promise and challenge of first-generation synthetic biology As an addendum to the previous post on synthetic biology, the following interview from the Wilson Center provides a great overview of what synthetic biology is all about, and the potential challenges of ensuring its safe development and use: [flashvideo file=http://www.nanotechproject.org/multimedia/flash/synbio2/rodemeyer-small.flv /] For more information, check out the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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A new report looks at the challenges of regulating first generation products of synthetic biology. At the J. Craig Venter Institute, scientists are on the verge of creating a living organism from “dead” chemicals, by rebooting a microbe with a new—and completely artificially constructed—genome. At the University of California Berkeley, researchers are modifying microbes to act as highly efficient chemical plants, by rewriting their DNA. In Cambridge Massachusetts, amateur biologists are scoring cheap laboratory equipment off eBay and Craigs List, and constructing their own designer bugs. While all over the world, hundreds of enthusiastic undergraduates are competing to systematically design and build new DNA-based biological systems and get them operating in living cells. Synthetic biology—the systematic engineering of biological organisms from the DNA up—is a reality now, and is destined to grow into an incredibly powerful transformative technology over the next few years. But can we handle it? In amidst the many questions our accelerating ability to manipulate DNA raises is one of oversight:  Are government agencies equipped to ensure the safety of new synthetic biology-related products and processes? A new report by Mike Rodemeyer—formerly Executive Director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology—addresses exactly this question. 

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Given the recent surge in 2020science readers (thanks to Lon S. Cohen at Mashable), I thought it about time I did a short retrospective—a taster for the type of stuff you can expect to read here.  So here are five pieces from the past year that cover everything from nanotechnology to synthetic biology, and ethics to the trials of being on the scientific meeting circuit—all from the perspective of emerging technologies. Enjoy! Asbestos-like nanomaterials – should we be concerned? It seems that when the possible downsides of nanotechnology are broached, it doesn’t take long for the “A” word to surface.  But what is the truth—if any—behind comparisons between nanomaterials and asbestos?  From January 2009. . Nanotechnology—In bed with Madonna? How do you squeeze Madonna, John Kerry, nanotechnology and Elle magazine into the same blog?  With difficulty is the correct answer I think, but somehow they all managed to appear together in this piece from April 2008. . . Synthetic biology, ethics and the hacker culture. What the heck is synthetic biology, is “biopunk” a real word, and are the 21st century equivalents of computer hackers going to reconfigure life as we know it?  I can’t promise any easy answers, but hopefully this post from June 2008 helps set the scene. . Geoengineering: Does it need a dose of geoethics? We’ve all heard of bioethics, but if the earth can be treated like one massive complex organism, do we need the planetary equivalent of bioethics—“geoethics” perhaps?  From January 2009. . . Enough meetings already! Ever get jealous of the scientific jet-set, swanning between “prestigious” speaking engagements in exotic places?  Don’t bother—the reality is far from glamorous, as this post from May last year tries to capture.  Fortunately, there are occasional compensations, albeit in unlikely forms! .

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Charles Darwin has a lot to answer for.  He saw the world with new eyes, fundamentally changed our understanding of nature, and upset a lot of people in the process.  200 years after his birth, Darwin’s work underpins modern biology.  His findings still challenge, stimulate and—amazingly—offend people the world over.  And his discoveries continue to teach us a lesson we are only now beginning to appreciate fully—that life is plastic; that it can change and adapt, and can therefore be manipulated and controlled. It’s this last point I want to write about on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.  Because as well as possibly marking another critical step in humanity’s history, it also contains a delicious irony—but more on that in a moment…

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If you are a regular visitor to 2020 Science, you may have noticed some changes creeping into the site in recent days.  The content’s still the same—a clear perspective on developing science and technology responsibly, with an emphasis on nanotechnology and synthetic biology (and anything else that piques my interest).  But hopefully the new layout and format make reading it a more pleasurable and productive experience. If you don’t like the changes, blame Ruth Seeley at No Spin PR—she’s the one who is sucking me into putting the blog on a more professional footing! Actually, that’s not at all fair—Ruth is helping develop a social networking strategy for 2020 Science (and doing a great job of it), and the changes have been prompted in part by the need to move the site to a new web host as we begin implementing the strategy.  And so far, the changes enabled by the move are rather exciting.  Not only does the website now look substantially better, but I can actually start playing around with WordPress plug-ins—geek heaven! I’ll be refining the site further over the coming weeks, but in the meantime here’s a quick rundown on the more significant changes you should check out:

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Last June I wrote a short piece on biohacking, prompted by a UK report on the social and ethical challenges of synthetic biology.  At the time, I though the aspirations of the nascent biopunk community naively optimistic, but potentially worrying.  Six months on, biohacking is hitting the mainstream press—and gaining momentum. Maybe it was just a slow news day.  Maybe the subject had substance.  Either way, a story posted yesterday by the Associated Press on home-style genetic engineering has attracted quite a bit of attention over the new services. The story revolves around Meredith L. Patterson—a 31-year-old computer programmer who is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that glow green to signal the presence of melamine—that most recent of food-contaminants.  According to the article, Patterson “learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.” And if you think that sounds far out, try the group DIYBio for size. Co-founded by Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, the Cambridge Massachusetts group is setting up a community lab where people can use chemicals and lab equipment according to AP—including a used low temperature freezer, scored for free off Craigslist!

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Policy, public perceptions, and the opportunities and challenges of synthetic biology Synthetic biology—a supreme expression of scientific hubris, or the solution to all our problems? Like everything in life, I suspect that the answer to the question is far from black and white.  Yet what is clear is that this emerging science and technology that merges evolutionary biology with systematic engineering raises many exciting new possibilities, together with a heap of complex social, ethical and even religious questions. Striking the right balance between these opportunities and challenges will require people working together in new and innovative ways—especially those involved in researching, developing, using and overseeing synbio.  If the emerging technology is to reach its potential, some tough decisions are going to have to be made at some point on what is developed, how it is used, and how it is regulated.  And the more these decisions are based on sound science and informed thinking, the better. This is the challenge a new initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has set its sights on.  The just-launched Project on Synthetic Biology aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of the field, working in collaboration with researchers, governments, industries, non-government organizations and others.  Supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will draw on experience gained in addressing science and technology policy issues by the Project on Emerging Technologies—so you can expect to see some familiar faces here ☺ Rather than write a tedious infomercial for the new project, I would suggest instead that you check out the snazzy new website at www.synbioproject.org.  Having said that, there are three things worth highlighting:

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2020 Science is the personal blog of Andrew Maynard - Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. More ... 

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