Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/11/19/synthetic_biologists/

Promote your local synthetic biologist

Oh, hold on. You don't need to

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Science, 19th November 2007 13:20 GMT

Analysis If your news filter is set to "bioterrorism" you may have seen a recent column by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian. Spurred by a London visit by Craig Venter, it was the usual journalistic script on synthetic biology.

Having delved into Lexis, we can say with authority that a couple of hundred major stories have run on synbio in the last two years. They fall into two categories: Rewritten press releases distributed by newspapers, made only for the purpose of announcing the synthetic biologist and how world-changing his research effort/company will be; and stories explaining how synthetic biologists will revitalise the world, but bad synbiologists will be making diseases, bioterrors and bio-errors, killing millions.

Margaret Atwood wrote a hack sci-fi novel, Oryx and Crake, on this in 2005. The most amusing part was the premise that only two jobs will exist in the future - a person could be a synthetic biologist, or an ad copywriter doing promotions for synbio companies. This showed Atwood had an appreciation for the megalomania in press release news on the subject.

Transformer of worlds

For the balance of the book, Atwood makes small talk about the entertainments the future internet will provide - animal snuff sites, deathrowlive.com - then kills off almost everyone with a manmade plague put into pills for increasing sexual potency.

"So beware of how we are being sold this scientific revolution with pledges to help Africa's poor and ease global warming," wrote Bunting in the Guardian on 22 October. "The poster child for synbio is the production of a cheap anti-malarial drug... equally plausible are bacteria that could mop up oil spills or extract heavy metal contamination from soil."

Inevitably, Bunting had to play the "world transformed" card. Cellulose will be easily converted to ethanol, "bacteria... could soak up carbon dioxide".

"How synbio could go wrong keeps even dedicated synthetic biologists awake at night," it continued.

The more one reads the proclamations from synthetic biologists, the more one finds they seem to have in common with the claims delivered by civilian egotists at the Pentagon who went on about a revolution in military affairs before Iraq went bad.

Biology, in fact all science, is given new starch. And anything fantastic that can be imagined will happen. The obstinacy of nature, results dictated from Murphy's Law in which experiments simply do not work - or actually do work, but just in ways that are no more or less productive than previously - is not in this story.

"It is a love of comfort, not to say sluggishness, that characterises those who protest against revolutionary innovations that happen to demand fresh efforts in the way of intellect, physical striving, and resolution."

This quote, from Heinz Guderian's mediocre book Achtung-Panzer!, even found its way into my mailbox this year as part of a puffed-up treatise on bioterrorism and the cure for it from the melding of alleged American scientific can-do-it-tiveness and synbio. (No name given since this writer has no desire to see another like it. Google part of the Guderian quote for a link. Who knew the Fuhrer's Panzer leader was such a great scientist?)

The script on synbio also demands the saluting of Amyris Biotechnologies, founded by Jay Keasling, as the firm which will cure malaria, according to the New York Times. The Times, by the way, appears to have had the greatest number of significant suck-up pieces on synbio published in newspaperland in 2007. If the number of times Amyris's work on producing a new source of the anti-malarial, artemisinin, is the criteria by which such a thing is accomplished, malaria's trouncing is in the bag; with the answer to global warming as the icing on the cake.

Since this is the active reality, one must expect bragging about the character of our future saviors.

"[There's] a nobleness and commitment they bring to these problems that I find really inspiring," said [prince of Silicon venture capital] John Doerr to the Times in June. Of course, he was bankrolling the same noblemen.

Summer was also for newspapermen to declare a consortium of universities working on biofuels - Stanford, UC Davis and UC Berkeley - to be the equivalent of the Manhattan Project, press which some scientists actually involved seemed to believe. (This Manhattan Project is in addition to the Manhattan Project the US military mounted to conquer IEDs. That went well.)

A lab director from Berkeley, Graham Fleming, told the Contra Costa Times the work was "probably the most important thing any of us will do in our scientific lives... We're off on a great adventure".

"Cellulosic ethanol is just the beginning, and not even an ideal one," reported the journalist tasked with delivering the grand vision. The reader will have noticed that, historically, the work of many scientists being compared favorably to the Manhattan Project prior to actually achieving anything is a recent American invention, perhaps to sow confusion and head off disappointment if, and when, new Manhattan Projects flop.

Protein rich

"'Grow a house' is on the to-do list of the MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group, presumably meaning that an acorn might be reprogrammed to generate walls, oak floors and a roof instead of the usual trunk and branches," reported the New York Times in publishing another blowhard piece on synbio in July.

Ten years ago, people from MIT were dispensing this scented bathwater.

"[We may develop] a tree which has gasoline or kerosene as its sap... Maybe you'll plant a house, let it grow, and then move into it," wrote W Daniel Hillis, ex of the MIT Media Lab for the LA Times in 1997.

While at Lehigh University and working on a PhD in chemistry in the mid-Eighties, this writer was familiar with a faculty member, a molecular geneticist, studying Trichoderma reesei, a fungus which produced cellulases. Of course, the big-eyed idea then was also to define and apply the science enough so as to enable the maximum production of cellulase for use in production of biofuels.

The scientist built a career on it, but cellulosic ethanol still isn't running the country. Although cellulase from T. reesei is used in the digestion of cellulose, it is not especially inexpensive or practical. In the past couple of years, an oil-rush-before-actual-oil industry has sprung up, one which promises cheap cellulases as well as many other things. Much of it is new snake oil for the investment rubes, lubricating jacked-up subsidies, grants, and hand-outs to the corn industry for benefits no one sees except as costlier food.

Without going into great detail on why the infinite bounty of nature's enzymes has resisted easy lending to cheap-as-water industrial transformations, it may suffice to say that old-timey molecular geneticists and biochemists knew something of the limitations in engineering various microbial boxes. And they tended not to waste a lot of time explaining it to journalists who usually didn't want to hear it, anyway.

It involves some complication to explain precisely why, for example, active proteins which work miraculously well for the microbial systems in which they evolve, tend to become increasingly unstable when removed, purified, and put in a different environment. Regardless of having genetic sequences for the production of cellulases in hand, lifetimes can be spent puzzling over and characterising the fine details of a protein's chemistry and its interaction with the world at large.

A. Richard Newton, the dean of the college of engineering at UC Berkeley, was "at the forefront of advocating for the use of synthetic biology to make fuel and drugs for malaria", reported Inside Bay Area last January - in his obituary. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.