My thoughts, memories, and uptakes of the days’ events.

Brain Overload during the day = Brain dump now… before I forget what happened!

This afternoon has been a complete eye-opener for me. I have already met some great people, talking about some great things. So far, there have been two introductory sessions: the first one gave an introduction to synthetic biology, and the second gave an introduction on biology and conservation.

The first session was introduced by Dr Rob Carlson, founder of Biodesic, the author of Biology is Technology, and who blogs at Synthesis. He gave a brief introduction to what synthetic biology is defined as today by showing us a Honda car advert. With this he explained that, like the car made out of little individual lego parts, life is made up of individual genes or DNA parts. And in synthetic biology we can put these parts together in ways to create systems for a specific function. As an analogy goes, I think this worked pretty well for an introduction!

Following this, we then heard from Prof Richard Kitney from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College (CSynBio). He gave some examples of the work that is happening at the Centre, and also mentioned that the way in which they operate is “Productively, and responsibly.” And when working responsibly, the centre takes into account any human factors (ethics/politics/economics) by working together with a team of social scientists.

Christopher Schoene from Oxford University was part of an Imperial College team of undergraduates that entered the iGEM competition. In just 10 weeks, Christopher and his team managed to speak to the relevant stakeholders, and design and create Auxin bacteria that has the potential to reduce desertification. To do this, they engineered bacteria that had a growth hormone in them. This bacteria, once the plant had taken root, would be released and swim towards the root. The hormones would then be released and absorbed by the roots, stimulating growth. It was a great project. What I found most impressive was that they had made sure that they had spoken to the stakeholders involved BEFORE THEY STARTED to find out what needed to be done. And then again afterwards, to make sure the product was what was needed.

Finally we heard form Michele Garfinkel from EMBO, who has been working on the policy and governance of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. She talked about the social issues concerned with SynBio (biosecurity, harm to the environment, human health), and which stake holders need to be involved in dialogues to try and address some of these concerns.

The session was closed with a Q&A with Prof Paul Freemont (CSynBio) and Jim Haseloff (Cambridge). Their introductions asked the questions that are fundamental to synthetic biology research: What is a living system? How do we create one that is stable?

From this session, it was obvious to see that the synthetic biologists are pro-active: they are looking to get their work to do something useful. But questions were raised about whether this was happening the right way: should synthetic biology provide solutions to problems like desertification in this manner: here is the science, lets make the technology and see how it can help. Would it be better to go to a problem and then look at how the science can help?

The second session was concerned with conservation biology: what is it? And how could synthetic biology help?

The introduction was given by Prof Georgina Mace from UCL, who started with a definition for biodiversity: it is life at ALL levels. She begged the quesitons: why should we worry about a loss of biodiversity? And this is what the next three speakers all had a go at answering.

First up, there was Dr Steve Palumbi from Stanford University. Steve has been doing research in genetics and evolution, and looks to see how different species adapt to rapidly changing environments. His two examples of corals and sea urchins, and how they had adapted at a genetic level to withstand higher temperatures and higher pH levels in the oceans. His quest to find out what Mother Nature knows that we don’t, is something that he hopes will help us understand evolution. He was hopeful about the opportunities that SynBio could offer, wanting to start some serious debates amongst those at the conference: What is limiting us to deploy any synthetic biology solutions when it comes to conservation? And What is limiting the development of the solutions that could be useful? It will be interesting to see if either of these questions will be answered.

Following Steve, there was Dr Keith Crandall from George Washington University. His take home message was that with such advances in technology of genome sequencing, we need to be able to improve the accuracy and speed of computation to deal with the large volumes of data that is being collected.

Finally, Prof Paul Falkowski from Rutgers University talked about how we need to start looking at how ecosystems are evolving, rather than at specific species. At a species level, the 500 or so genes that drive evolution stopped changing years ago.

What I took away from this Q&A was that care should be taken not to start defining biological systems as engineering systems. They are fundamentally different.

The day ended with a lighthearted talk from Prof Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist with a background in communications. He talked to us about imagining the future. This seemed, at the start, a rather apt talk to have at the end of a day when we have been thinking about how synthetic biology and conservation will change the future of nature. After the talk however, I felt a like I had been lulled into a false sense of security. He said that any future we imagined was never going to be as bad as we predict, or as good as we predict. The take home message I got from it was that whatever decision we make in life, everything will be alright. So does that mean that my life decisions don’t matter? And overall won’t have an impact? And if that was the message, was that a good one to end a day like this on? When any decisions made in synthetic biology will have (at the moment) an entirely unknown impact on ecosystems all over the world. Decisions like this definitely DO matter.

Looking back, it is interesting to note the differences and similarities between the two disciplines. Obviously, one was about synthetic biology, and one was about conservation and biodiversity, but the SynBio scientists were generally more proactive, and the conservation biologists were generally more reactive: they were more about the Precautionary Principle. They were concerned with containment of anything synthetically created, so that if it is to be released outside of the lab, that it cannot reproduce, and cannot interfere with live on Earth at the moment.

But would such containment not stifle and slow down any research being done in synthetic biology? Synthetic biologists were saying that making the research more about containment would get in the way of innovation and creativity, it would halt research directions down avenues not explored before purely because they would not be suitable or containable.

This is where there is a culture clash between the two groups: in general, conservation biologists are concerned with what affects synthetic biology will have on the environment, where as synthetic biologists are excited about the possibilities that the science can offer. These two communities work in completely different areas, and that is why this conference is so interesting: by speaking to each other, hopefully they will begin to understand the concerns each community has. I did find though, that the synthetic biologists were concerned with how their work would affect the environment, and that is one of the reasons that this conference was happening in the first place!

Another interesting thing to mention is the difference in the way that the two communities frames their ideas. One such difference to note was how each group defined synthetic biology. The synthetic biologists called it systems engineering, and one of the conservationists called it “monkeying around.” Systems engineering implies logic, understanding, stability, and any other words that fit in with the engineering rhetoric. “Monkeying around” has a very different ring to it. What they meant was that synthetic biologists are playing with a science that they don’t fully understand. These scientists are unsure of the consequences of their actions, and yet still attempting to go ahead with it.

The issue for me at this point was that as humans, and scientists, we don’t fully understand the process of evolution yet either. So how are we supposed to design systems that either mimic, or improve upon, those already in existence, if we don’t really know how they work?

One remark that was made to me during the networking parts (pub) was that it is very rare than scientific researchers in academia, let alone synthetic biologists, will approach stakeholders of the future applications of the science, BEFORE the science has happened. this is what made the iGEM project Auxin so different, is that this team of undergraduates did just that! This is different from industrial/commercial research, because here the market is important: how will the stakeholders/funders/consumers react to their work/product? They have a certain credibility to maintain within the commercial world, which is governed by what the consumers will buy.

So far, it has been an extremely interesting experience. There are some great people here, and I am learning a whole lot more than I had anticipated. The conclusions I am taking away from today is that the main concern lies in the consequences of our actions. I am definitely looking forward to more thought-provoking talks on this tomorrow!

Go to the orginal article here or listen below