Massively collaborative synthetic biology

I recently started listening to podcasts by the Long Now Foundation, which is their monthly recorded lecture series. They’ve all been really good. However, this month’s talk on Massively collaborative synthetic biology by Drew Endy was beyond really good. This is one of the best things I’ve listened to all year.

The talk gives you a primer on the current state of bioengineering, through lens of the iGEM program, which works with high school and college students participating in annual competitions to build reusable bio bricks. This program was born 10 years ago as a winter session class at MIT. Incoming students had the expectation that they would be taught about bioengineering, especially how to create organisms… except, no one had really figured that out yet. So instead the faculty framed this as a “let’s learn together” exercise. And it grew from there.

During one of the iGEM summers they were working on changing the smells of e coli. Part of this exploration involved going to a local cheese shop and picking some of the smelliest cheeses to tinker with the options they had in front of them. In the process the students asked and interesting question though: most of these cheeses are small batch artisanal. As such, these are made by humans by hand. The human biome is massively diverse in bacteria. Could it be that the cheese maker is more than craftsman, but also mother to the cheese? The bacteria of the cheese maker herself being an important part of the final product.

There is also an interesting wander through the ethics of the field. Right now the conversation (via news reporting and entertainment) around genetic modification is starkly black and white. It’s doom or it’s salvation. It’s definitely neither. But until we get out of a black and white world, we can’t actually have the useful and productive conversation about the space.

Drew also lays out this vision of retooling our mater supply chain to be one that’s biology based instead of petroleum based. Making stuff today largely requires fossil fuels. Not just for feed stock, but for the energy of the whole transformation process. But in a bioengineering future we could transform our making of stuff to be the growing of stuff. Going straight from the raw source of energy on this planet (the Sun) into the manufacturing process. To me, this is a really compelling future.

Honestly, these snippets just touch the surface. Do yourself a favor and have a listen to the talk. You won’t regret it.