At Edge, John Brockman interviews Stanford prof. Drew Endy on the question “how to make biology easy to engineer?”
(…) The underlying goal of synthetic biology is to make biology easy to engineer. What does that mean? It means that when I want to go build some new biotechnology, whether it makes a food that I can eat or a bio-fuel that I can use in my vehicle, or I have some disease I want to try and cure, I don’t want that project to be a research project. I want it to be an engineering project. In the science of biology, the people you’re talking to are scientists, they’re not engineers, andâ€”not to be arrogant, just to be an observationalistâ€”the question is, if you’re an engineer looking at biotechnology, what do you need to do in order to make it easy to engineer? That’s what synthetic biology is about.
The interview concludes with this
(…) When we organized the First Synthetic Biology Conference at MIT in 2004, we were expecting about 150 people, so we booked a room for 297. And 500 people wanted to come given six weeks of notice. Now it’s going on four years later, the fourth meeting will be at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which I think will blow doors off of most places in the world 20 years from now. The University is in Clearwater Bay in Kowloon, Hong Kong. I got off a flight there to meet with the local organizers, and the fellow who’s championing our organizational visit is a retired banker, who was responsible for helping take Apple public all the way up to building up capital markets in China recently. He looks at what’s going on and he says, explaining to a real estate tycoon in Hong Kong, ‘I remember the personal computer and I remember recombinant DNA, and what’s happening here is both. And this is important, and Hong Kong needs to support this.’ And he looks at me, and asks, ‘Did I get that right?’ This is the first time I’ve ever met this fellow. ‘Yeah, that’s pretty much right.’ He is a very impressive fellow and a very, very good person.
There are some people who understand what’s going on, and who are in a position, or who have comfort acting on time scales that are relevant. It is interesting for me to learn how difficult it is for folks to appreciate what an exponential technology really implies. The fact that sequencing goes from approximately zero to human genomes in ten years. The same thing is happening with construction of genomes. And with the parts collectionâ€”the standard biological parts doubling every year. And the same thing is happening with the number of teenagers who would like to do genetic engineering; it’s doubling every year. How do you actually live in a world where you’re surfing that exponential in a way that’s constructive and responsible? Very few people get that.
(…) How do you recognize this exponential and serve it and bring more people to participate in it? The rewards of doing this are greater than any one groupâ€™s project. For instance, the team from Melbourne, Australia showed up with a 6,000 base pair fragment of DNA that they found, which somehow, I don’t know how this actually works, folds up … the proteins get made and the proteins self-assemble into a 50 nanometer, very tiny, sphere that is filled up with gas. The protein shell is somehow gas-impermeable, and these little balloons, these protein balloons, get booted up inside the cytoplasm, the insides of cells, and you can control how many different balloons there are. Depending on the number of balloons, the cells will either float or sink or be neutral.
Who knew? I didn’t know anything about this biology, and they showed up, they made this standard biological part, such that we can now snap it together with the 2,000 other parts that we’ve got in our collection so far, which is a free collection. We shipped over a hundred thousand parts around the world last year, for free, and the collection’s doubling in size every year.
Very highly recommended. Dr. Endy is the founder of the MIT IGEM competition (International Genetically Engineered Machines), and a co-founder of BIOFAB. See BIOFAB and BioBricks: synthetic biology is taking off. More here.