BBC Radio 4, Monday 12 August 2015
The key question of the 21st century may turn out to be: 'Who are we and what will we become?' The 20th century focused on our mastery of the physical world, and the early 21st saw the creation of virtual realities; now the focus shifts to our own biology. This question and the implications of its potential answers are explored in 'FutureProofing: Life', presented by Leo Johnson and Timandra Harkness on BBC Radio 4.
The two set out to understand the field of synthetic biology, a rapidly growing field, which applies the tools and culture of engineering to biological applications. Indeed, it is the convergence of biology, engineering and digital technology that makes synthetic biology possible.
But what is synthetic biology? After all, we've possessed the ability to genetically engineer living organisms for decades now. While debate still continues over the use of genetically engineered organisms, they're a commonly accepted fact of life, subject to well-established social and regulatory norms. To me, synthetic biology is genetic modification 2.0: not the alteration of a single gene, but the redesigning of whole genetic pathways and – the key distinction to me – the creation of novel biological mechanisms not previously seen in nature.
The presenters employ a nifty metaphor. Let's say the age of biology as an applied science dawned with the discovery of the double helix. Watson and Crick (and Franklin, etc.) are to biology what the Wright Brothers are to flight. Genetic engineering as we've known it, to me, is analogous to the World War One-era biplanes. Synthetic biology is, in the words of Johnson and Harkness, closer to jetliners or to the space shuttle.
And the future will have people constructing the biological equivalent of a Boeing 737 in their shed.
This is because synthetic biology is, more than any other current science, is a DIY endeavour not seen since the early days of the computer hackers. We meet laboratory scientists working on arsenic-sensing bacteria for use in poor villages, and Hackney hipsters modifying yeast to reduce the need for added sugar in food. It's a world of startling contradictions – the FBI is keeping a close eye on developments but seems to have a relaxed attitude for the time being, allowing the community to regulate itself through workshops and outreach programmes. Meanwhile, artists such as Daisy Ginsburg depict a future of biological machines which inspire the scientific community in ways unexpected.
I wasn't surprised by the attitudes of the scientists to their work. Having once been one myself I know there is no mad cackle as they play God. Instead, there is the familiar vibe of curiosity. Synthetic biology is a young field and has yet to acquire the commercialisation and negative connotations of early genetic modification. The people interviewed want to learn from nature and use those lessons to improve the world.
What struck me throughout, however, were the philosophical questions we must now confront. Craig Venter works on a machine that converts biological information to digital and back again, so the boundaries between the living, the non-living and the virtual blur. As he describes it, the cognitive map we have breaks down.
After talking to Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of CRISPR/Cas9 – a powerful yet relatively easy tool for genetic modification – the conversation turns to human genome engineering. Where are lines drawn to separate the bad from the good ... from the improved? As biology becomes editable, more akin to software, we now can ask what will we become? What should we become? We have power but need understanding.
Harkness leaves us with this conundrum: in a future in which our biology is infinitely malleable, what defines our humanity? Looking to the pioneers of synthetic biology, they conclude that, ultimately, it may be our desire to improve the world.
The Progress Educational Trust's public conference 'From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: The Science and Ethics of Engineering the Embryo' is taking place in central London on Wednesday 9 December 2015. Find out more here.