An article in the October issue of Discover Magazine has a great line from Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford University who has become one of the foremost public figures in the field of synthetic biology. It’s not his comment about how, someday, synthetic biology might allow us to create a modified fungus that can turn a can of sawdust into a computer, although I understand why that caught the interviewer off guard. Great lede, but Endy has been saying things like that for years. Nor is it anything about the overall vision he offers of synthetic biology: the generation of standardized genetic parts that predictably do what they are designed to do and can be strung together in larger assemblies—in effect, genetic programs that can in turn be inserted into fungi, yeast, or bacteria cells and cause them to carry out the designer’s bidding without the designer even having to know very much about the underlying biology. Nope. Familiar stuff, all that.
No, for me, the fascinating line is the very last sentence in the interview: “We actually have a chance of reinventing civilization.” Usually, synthetic biology is thought of as offering a chance to reinvent nature, not civilization. That seems to be the point of talking about “synthetic” biology, “synthetic organism,” and “artificial life” in the first place: witness the book by George Church, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. These terms are meant to sound revolutionary, and the revolution is against the second part of each phrase—“biology,” “organism,” “life.” The first part is supposed to spin the second around.
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