Is synthetic biology dangerous? How to manage the world's most important new science.

What's to come?
Feb. 3 2011 2:02 PM

Don't Be Afraid of the Dragon

Fears of synthetic biology are overblown.

1_123125_2267723_futuretense_logo_allabbrevoneline

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on whether governments can keep pace with scientific advances will be held at Google D.C.'s headquarters on Feb. 3-4. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the  NAF Web site.)

Click here to view a slide show on synthetic biology.

Genetic engineering is the direct manipulation of an organism's DNA in ways not possible under natural conditions, a tool for programming living things. The outputs can be beneficial, such as new medicines or renewable fuels, or harmful, by design or by accident. Historically, genetic engineering was possible only by trained professionals with sophisticated facilities, limiting the pace and scope of work and allowing some degree of oversight and regulation. "Synthetic biology," an improved suite of tools for genetic manipulation, is removing these barriers and brakes, significantly changing the landscape. The implications of this could be profound for individuals, for industries, for nations, and even for the planet.

One way to help think about the future of synthetic biology is to visualize the cell as a living computer. Through this lens, synthetic biology can be mapped onto what happened when computing, a different technology of similar power once available to only the select few, went mainstream. The lessons of this shift could serve as an important guide for decision-making about synthetic biology. How do we best support the development of good things, appreciating that full control and the complete elimination of harm are impossible?

Click here to view a slide show on synthetic biology.

Andrew Hessel is the co-chair of biotechnology and bioinformatics at the Singularity University, and the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, an effort to open-source the development of personalized cancer therapeutics.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.