Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Good news: Poop that smells like mint. Bad news: everybody dies

How biotech could change our world: An interview:
RS: Well, for us, what we're really interested in doing at Gingko is making biological engineering easier. And obviously, one of the aspects of what that means is you're essentially democratizing access to the technology. You're making it so that more and more people can come in and engineer biological systems. Now just like with any technology, by making it easier and making it more accessible, you're both promoting huge advantages, and there are going to be areas for concern.

How do we know that the next time around when we have an outbreak of Avian flu, or whatnot, how do we know that the traditional "academic" labs and research institutes around the world are going to be prepared to respond? Maybe we can develop a wider network of people who can work towards engineering biological systems for good. You're creating a larger community of people, that you can tap into to come up with useful things for society. So from our perspective, yes, we are making biology easier and we're democratizing access to it, but we're also working to make that community of folks who are doing this work as constructive as possible, and trying to create a culture essentially where people are trying to use these technologies for good rather than for harm.

JT: I guess my concern is that if you look at the history of computers and software engineering, the easier it gets to design things, and especially when you look at things like computer viruses, it's gotten to the point now where essentially, there are the equivalent of these “send us a sequence and we'll give you DNA [companies].” There's “send us what you want your computer virus to do and we'll send you back a computer virus.” I'm just a little concerned that the track record of humanity, when given easy access to new technologies, has not been great.

RS: Well, what's the alternative to what you're suggesting? Should we all get rid of our computers so that we don't have the potential for computer viruses? You have to understand that, yes; there were some costs that came about with the computer revolution. But there were also huge benefits. You're giving people access to information in a way that they never had before. So, in some ways, you can think about it that computers save people's lives. If I have a rare disease and my doctor doesn't happen to know how to diagnose it, I can go Google online and look for my symptoms, and potentially find the right doctor to go to to help cure myself, right?

So, the problem with every technology is that you have to take the bad with the good. So what we can do, basically, is to try to bias the technology into folks who are working around that technology towards good as much as possible. And that's what I and others are actively working to do. So your question is -- you're ignoring all the good that has come out of things like making software programming easier and more open.

JT: The point's well taken. One last question on the subject and then we'll move on. My wife has told me -- she took organic chemistry in college, and was told that basically once you have a degree like that, expect that the government's going to keep an eye on you later on in life, if you're ordering things, for example. Has there been any thought or talk about, for example, Homeland Security keeping an eye on what's going on in this field?

RS: Well, I would say that the relationships have been actually much more positive than that. I think the idea has been for researchers in the field, and for folks from government, and folks from industry, to get together and figure out, "Hey, there's a lot of good that can come out of this. But there is also some potential for accidents and harm. How do we work together to create an environment where the most constructive things happen?" So I would say that there has certainly been discussions with folks from government. But it's not so much been a “how do we tamp down on this or how do we regulate this”, but “how do we work together to minimize the risk of something bad happening.

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