A Synthetic Biology Conference Lures an Intriguing Audience

Neil Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that synthetic biology, which involves the creation of biological systems intended for specific purposes, can generate scientific advances as well as ethical questions.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When does a scientific conference warrant the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security? When the topic is synthetic biology.

Both of those federal agencies turned out on May 1 to monitor the proceedings here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and a representative from the F.B.I. even spoke. Their attendance, as well as a lively discussion about the science and ethics of synthetic biology, sheds light on how much attention is being focused on this rapidly advancing field of science.

Synthetic biology, a 20-year-old engineering pursuit that tries to extend the genetic code with artificial nucleotides, promises to produce advances in medical therapies, materials and biological computing akin to animal and human cognition.

The field received new impetus this week when researchers at the Scripps Research Institute published a paper in the journal Nature, saying they had created an organism by adding artificial genetic code to its DNA — specifically, two new nucleotides that they named X and Y, in addition to the existing natural nucleotides of A, C, G and T.

As Andrew Pollack reported in The New York Times, “The accomplishment might eventually lead to organisms that can make medicines or industrial products that cells with only the natural genetic code cannot.”

Alicia Jackson, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology materials scientist, presented her work in this field at the symposium, organized by the Center for Bits and Atoms, an M.I.T. research group that focuses on new design and manufacturing technologies.

Dr. Jackson has a new Defense Department project that she has named Living Foundries. In April, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency underscored the significance of the project when they created an office, the Biological Technologies Office, with Dr. Jackson as deputy director.

“What we’re interested in is how to harness the power of biology to make materials,” she said in her symposium presentation. “The goal of Living Foundries is to start speaking about how do we use biology to create things like polymers and catalysts as well as really new types of materials.”

Neil Gershenfeld, a physicist who is the director of the Center for Bits and Atoms, said that the improvement in the capacity to read and write biological genes has given rise to the possibility of “spectacular advances,” like the ability to use a computer to design a complete genome, output it, insert it in a cell and in effect create life from scratch.

The new abilities, he noted, raised ethical questions that are as yet unanswered.

“When the ability to convert biology to data and data into biology becomes that cheap, that agile, that easy to do, what are the consequences?” he said.

He added, “The most exciting and frightening thing I saw this morning was a slide talking about designing and synthesizing genomes next to a slide describing a human being.”

These kinds of concerns would explain the presence of the federal law enforcement representatives. In his own presentation, the F.B.I. agent, Carmine Nigro, bluntly warned, “These technologies do not just pose a risk to individual buildings or cities, but if cleverly deployed, can reduce our population by significant percentages.”

Credit...Mark Ostow for The New York Times

“That,” he said, “is a responsibility that we owe as members of the intelligence community and hope you will share with us.”

Other speakers included biologists, physicists, computer scientists and mechanical engineers who outlined new design techniques, applications like ones for personalized medical treatments and ambitious efforts to revive extinct species such as the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth.

George Church, a Harvard biologist and a pioneer in sequencing the human genome, spoke about what he described as the creation of “radical new genomes.”

“Why do we want to make radical new genomes, rather than making subtle changes that might be sufficient?” he asked. The advantages, he said, include the ability to design new safeguards, new virus resistance and new chemistry.

John Glass, a member of the group at the J. Craig Venter Institute that in 2010 fabricated the first synthetic cell, described his current research.

“It inspired our group to go on from this initial synthetic organism to try to build what we refer to as a ‘true minimal cell,'” he said. Building such a living organism will be an invaluable aid to deeper understanding of basic biological processes, he declared.

Ryan Phelan, a biotechnology entrepreneur, described the efforts of Revive and Restore, a project of the Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to making “long-term thinking” more common. The project is trying to use genetic engineering techniques to restore the passenger pigeon, a migratory bird that flocked by the billions in the United States before the turn of the last century. The species was hunted out of existence after the invention of the telegraph and railroad made it possible for humans to efficiently track the birds.

She described the increasing rate of “extinction events,” particularly ones affecting bird species.

“The field of conservation is at a low point,” she said. “All you hear is bad stories. What we’re trying to do is bring an influx of technology and hope to the field of conservation.”

But the risks and concerns involved in synthetic biology were made clear by an absence, as much as by the presence of the law enforcement officials and the ambitious aspirations of the scientists who presented. Huanming Yang, chairman of Beijing Genomics Institute, the world’s largest sequencing research institute, was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the event but was denied a visa by the United States government.

In his absence, the institute’s research was described by Laurie Goodman, editor of Gigascience, a data science journal. She noted that the inclusion of the Chinese research group in the Human Genome Project was the first such Chinese involvement in an international scientific collaboration.

“Ten years later, B.G.I. was one of the largest genomics research institutes in the world and now it’s global,” she said.

The day after the symposium, Dr. Church participated in a public conversation at the M.I.T. Media Laboratory, where he is now a visiting fellow. In contrast to the technical focus of the previous day’s symposium, he discussed some of the more speculative possibilities of the new technologies.

Last year, he noted, he was able to encode the text of his book about synthetic biology, “Regenesis,” into DNA, and then grow more than 70 million copies, in effect printing more than the sum of the 100 most popular books ever written. He said that the new method had attracted attention from archivists, who were looking for better technologies to preserve human culture. Not only does such a technique offer longer-lasting storage, but it is more than a million times denser than today’s electronic storage technologies.

All in all, he said, the concerns about gene therapy are overstated.

“When it does get to the point where it is incredibly cheap to do it, it will also be incredibly cheap to reverse it, as well,” he said. “We’re augmented and we need to get used to it.”

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