Artemisinin (anti-malaria drug that is now produced via synthetic biology) is the first step in what Keasling hopes will become a much larger program. “We ought to be able to make any compound produced by a plant inside a microbe,” he said. “We ought to have all these metabolic pathways. You need this drug: O.K., we pull this piece, this part, and this one off the shelf. You put them into a microbe, and two weeks later out comes your product.”
That’s what Amyris has done in its efforts to develop new fuels. “Artemisinin is a hydrocarbon, and we built a microbial platform to produce it,” Keasling said. “We can remove a few of the genes to take out artemisinin and put in a different gene, to make biofuels.” Amyris, led by John Melo, who spent years as a senior executive at British Petroleum, has already engineered three microbes that can convert sugar to fuel. “We still have lots to learn and lots of problems to solve,” Keasling said. “I am well aware that makes some people anxious, and I understand why. Anything so powerful and new is troubling. But I don’t think the answer to the future is to race into the past.”
Those in the west who want to slow certain applications of synthetic biology:
Keasling, too, believes that the nation needs to consider the potential impact of this technology, but he is baffled by opposition to what should soon become the world’s most reliable source of cheap artemisinin. “Just for a moment, imagine that we replaced artemisinin with a cancer drug,” he said. “And let’s have the entire Western world rely on some farmers in China and Africa who may or may not plant their crop. And let’s have a lot of American children die because of that. Look at the world and tell me we shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not people in Africa who see malaria who say, Whoa, let’s put the brakes on.”
Freeman Dyson on the Impact of Widespread Synthetic Biology Capability
Freeman Dyson wrote: “every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business.” This, of course, we have been doing in one way or another for millennia. “Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people.”
New Yorker Writer speculates: It is only a matter of time before domesticated biotechnology presents us with what Dyson described as an “explosion of diversity of new living creatures. . . . Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture
Getting to Inherently Safe Designs
The debate over genetically engineered food has often focussed on theoretical harm rather than on tangible benefits. “If you build a bridge and it falls down, you are not going to be permitted to design bridges ever again,” Endy said. “But that doesn’t mean we should never build a new bridge. There we have accepted the fact that risks are inevitable.” He believes the same should be true of engineering biology.
We also have to think about our society’s basic goals and how this science might help us achieve them. “We have seen an example with artemisinin and malaria,” Endy said. “Maybe we could avoid diseases completely. That might require us to go through a transition in medicine akin to what happened in environmental science and engineering after the end of the Second World War. We had industrial problems, and people said, Hey, the river’s on fire—let’s put it out. And, after the nth time of doing that, people started to say, Maybe we shouldn’t make factories that put shit into the river. So let’s collect all the waste. That turns out to be really expensive, because then we have to dispose of it. Finally, people said, Let’s redesign the factories so that they don’t make that crap.”
Ultimate Solution to Healthcare ?
Endy pointed out that we are spending trillions of dollars on health care and that preventing disease is obviously more desirable than treating it. “My guess is that our ultimate solution to the crisis of health-care costs will be to redesign ourselves so that we don’t have so many problems to deal with. But note,” he stressed, “you can’t possibly begin to do something like this if you don’t have a value system in place that allows you to map concepts of ethics, beauty, and aesthetics onto our own existence
How much of this was science fiction?
Endy stood up. “Can I show you something?” he asked, as he walked over to a bookshelf and grabbed four gray bottles. Each one contained about half a cup of sugar, and each had a letter on it: A, T, C, or G, for the four nucleotides in our DNA. “You can buy jars of these chemicals that are derived from sugarcane,” he said. “And they end up being the four bases of DNA in a form that can be readily assembled. You hook the bottles up to a machine, and into the machine comes information from a computer, a sequence of DNA—like T-A-A-T-A-G-C-A-A. You program in whatever you want to build, and that machine will stitch the genetic material together from scratch. This is the recipe: you take information and the raw chemicals and compile genetic material. Just sit down at your laptop and type the letters and out comes your organism.”
We don’t have machines that can turn those sugars into entire genomes yet. Endy shrugged. “But I don’t see any physical reason why we won’t,” he said. “It’s a question of money. If somebody wants to pay for it, then it will get done.” He looked at his watch, apologized, and said, “I’m sorry, we will have to continue this discussion another day, because I have an appointment with some people from the Department of Homeland Security.”