Synthetic biology and nanotech

Yesterday at the IFTF meeting (pdf) “Beyond the Horizon: Science and Technology in Ten, Twenty and Fifty Years” we heard from a leading synthetic biologist. In addition to describing this fascinating and potentially powerful new technology, he made a plea that it not be “re-militarized” (as biology was formerly, he said) and that we needed to organize society so that people take responsibility for this new democratized biology, but that he didn’t know how to do this and offered it as a challenge to the audience.

I (mistakenly) took this to mean that he was dodging the issue of possible misuse of this potentially very powerful technology, so in the Q&A I asked whether he had reached out to the defense/security establishment on how to prevent abuse. Turns out that he definitely had, but had been underwhelmed by their response — only a little interest. I took the opportunity to point out that we had representatives from both the U.S. Army and the U.S. intelligence establishment at the IFTF meeting, and that he was unlikely to find better people to talk with on this question than those who had been assigned the task of looking 10-50 years out. He agreed, and after his talk I made sure these folks got started talking. One comment in this smaller conversation was that the U.S. needs integrated, high-level coordination on this, perhaps from the Office of Net Assessment. So if you have contacts there, let me know.

Why does this matter to nanotech? To the general public, synthetic biology and nanotech are pretty indistinguishable: powerful, useful tiny technologies that could cause problems accidentally or on purpose. A major error by either one will hurt both. See this New Scientist piece on how the synthetic biology community is struggling with the challenge of regulating their field.

Then today, I heard from an attendee that the U.S. State Dept and the EU recently met to try to harmonize proposed nanoproduct safety testing standards. This would require Europe to loosen up and the U.S. to tighten up, which might be a good thing all around. The aim: to avoid the kind of market fragmentation we now have in GM foods. A worthwhile goal; I wish them luck in the effort — they’ll need it, on both ends! —Christine

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