Chapter 3. “My Lab Should Not Be Trusted.”

Page 56

Venter himself was more measured. “We’ve created the first synthetic cell,” he said. “We defi nitely have not created life from scratch, because we used a recipient cell to boot up the synthetic chromosome.”

Ewen Callaway, “Immaculate Creation: Birth of the First Synthetic Cell,” New Scientist, 20 May 2010.

[George Church] told Nature that “Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language.”

George Church, “Life After the Synthetic Cell—Now Let’s Lower Costs,” Nature, 27 May 2010.

[Venter’s] not joking, and to prove it he did a deal with every environmentalist’s favorite bad boy, Exxon Mobil, which is backing his idea with hundreds of millions of dollars.

Katie Howell, “ExxonMobil Bets $600 Million on Algae,” Scientific American, 14 July 2009.

San Francisco–based LS9 have modifi ed the genetics of E. coli bacteria so that if you feed them sugar, they produce fuels with “properties that are essentially indistinguishable from those of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel”—attracting the attentions (and the money) of oil giant Chevron.

“LS9 UltraCleanTM Fuels,” LS9 website.

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Construction of a new factory with 2.5 million gallons of annual capacity is under way.

Jennifer Kho, “LS9 to Start Building Demo Plant, Raising $65M,” Earth2Tech website, 25 Feb. 2009.

“Basically everything we’re making will work in the existing infrastructure.”

Fareed Zakaria, “A Bug to Save the Planet,” Newsweek, 16 June 2008.

Elsewhere, Joule Biotechnologies is already using genetically altered photosynthesizing bacteria to take in waste CO2, mix it with sunlight and make diesel and ethanol.

How about a bacterium that makes biodegradable plastic?

“Your Plastic Pal,” Economist, 26 Nov. 2009.

Or one that pumps out components for antimalarial drugs?

David Lubertozzi and Jay D. Keasling, “Expression of a Synthetic Artemesia annua Amorphadiene Synthase in Aspergillus nidulans Yields Altered Product Distribution,” Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology 35(10):1191–98.

If you’re diabetic, it’s almost certain your insulin supply is also produced by E. coli bacteria whose genome has been tinkered with, and soon genetically modified plants will be producing it too.

“From SemBiosys, A New Kind of Insulin,” BusinessWeek, 13 Aug. 2007. And also J. G. Boothe et al., “Analytical Characterization, Safety and Clinical Bioequivalence of Recombinant Human Insulin from Transgenic Plants,” Symbiosis.

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“What’s the worst that can happen to me?” he said to a friend before heading to the hospital to take part in the trial. “I die, and it’s for the babies.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “The Biotech Death of Jesse Gelsinger,” New York Times, 28 Nov. 1999.

His immune system took the virus to be hostile and went into overdrive, spiraling fatally out of control and resulting in multiple organ failure.

“The Case of Jesse Gelsinger,” University of Pennsylvania High School Bioethics website.

Other dangers associated with gene therapy include the risk that the code inserts itself into the genome in the wrong place and triggers cancer; that a friendly virus doesn’t know when to quit and does “too much of a good thing”; or that a newly arrived gene gets “over expressed” with harmful results

“Guidance for Industry: Gene Therapy Clinical Trials—Observing Subjects for Delayed Adverse Events” (Rockville, Md.: U.S. Department of Healthand Human Services [FDA] Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Nov. 2006).

…the same university that hosted the Gelsinger tragedy injected a gene that codes for the missing enzyme into nine-year-old Corey Hass’s retinal cells.

Albert Maguire et al., “Age-dependent Effects of RPE65 Gene Therapy for Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis: A Phase 1 Dose-escalation Trial,” Lancet 374(9701):1597–1605.

“It’s pretty amazing. They’ve changed my son’s life forever.”

Kayt Sukel, “Gene Therapy Offers Hope for Rare Retinal Condition,” Dana Foundation website, 7 Dec. 2009.

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In a paper published by George Church’s lab shortly before our meeting, the situation is neatly summarized: “Our ability to sequence genomes,” write the authors “has greatly outpaced our ability to modify genomes.”

H. H. Wang et al., “Programming Cells by Multiplex Genome Engineering and Accelerated Evolution,” Nature 460(26 July 2009):894–98.

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“What once took months now takes days,” says Stephen del Cardayré, vice president of research and development

Emily Singer, “A Machine That Speeds Up Evolution,” Technology Review, 17 March 2009.

Wired magazine described it as a technique that “could make it as easy to rewrite a genome as to read it.”

Brandon Keim, “Genome Engineering Goes High Speed,” Wired, 27 July 2009.

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I’m reminded of something I’d heard him say in a video of the 2009 Edge Foundation sponsored master-class, “A Short Course in Synthetic Genomics: “We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer.” Master Class:

Page 63

In the cheering paper “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” written while he was at Yale University, Bostrom refers to some Australian gene fiddling undertaken in the search to create a new contraceptive.

Page 64

In an interview for New Scientist, Ron Jackson, part of the team who ran the study, said that if “some idiot” put the equivalent human gene into human smallpox, “they’d increase the lethality quite dramatically.” He continued, “I wouldn’t be the one who’d want to do that experiment.”

Rachel Nowak, “Disaster in the Making,” New Scientist, 13 Jan. 2001.

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“What we worry about is that these tools will fall into the wrong hands and in some sense this is really an unprecedented threat—when a few people or even technically competent individuals gain access to tools that can produce so much damage.”

Ali Nouri, “Biotechnology and Biosecurity,” lecture presented to Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford, UK, 17–20 July, 2008.

“The technological barriers to the production of superbugs are being steadily lowered even as the biotechnological know-how and equipment diffuse ever more widely.”

Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic, eds., Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 23.

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“There is a lot at stake,” [Drew Endy] says in an interview for the Technology Review.

“I really want to see how far this field can go,” but admits the answer will be “not very far” if the industry doesn’t grapple with the bio-error/ bioterror issue comprehensively

Stephen Herrera, “Preparing the World for Synthetic Biology,” Technology Review, January 2005.

You’ll find George arguing in print for “a code of ethics and standards” and a “list of precautions only limited by our creativity” in an article written for Nature four years before our meeting.

George Church, “Let Us Go Forth and Safely Multiply,” Nature 438 (24 November 2005):423.

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By 2007, George was taking part in a joint study between the J. Craig Venter Institute, M.I.T and The Center for Strategic and International Studies along with a “Who’s Who” of synthetic biology. The study outlined seventeen options for governance.

Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance.

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In particular, members of these consortia are beginning to implement the scanning of DNA orders—making sure no one is ordering anything that looks like a pathogen.

“DNA Firms Step Up Security over Bioterrorism Threat,” New Scientist, 14 Sept. 2008.

It’s heartening to note that in covering Bostrom’s Global Stratospheric Risks conference, New Scientist chose to write an article entitled “The End of the World is Not Nigh.”

Michael Brooks, “The End of the World Is Not Nigh,” New Scientist, 23 July, 2008.

It is now largely accepted that an overlooked piece of drain maintenance at the Pirbright animal disease research facility in Surrey, England, allowed an incidence of a 1967 virus no longer in circulation back into the UK countryside in the summer of 2007.

Dr. Iain Anderson, CBE “Foot and Mouth Disease 2007: A Review and Lessons Learned,” presented to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London, UK, 8 March 2008.

Page 69

The 2002 figures from the World Health Organization show that cardiovascular, infectious or parasitic diseases and cancer account for sixty-five per cent of deaths each year.

“Annex Table 2 – Deaths by cause, sex and mortality stratum in WHO regions, estimates for 2002,” World Health Organization 2004 Report (Geneva: UN World Health Organization).

The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have developed technology for a screening device that can identify multiple diseases

Guolin Xu et al., “A self-contained all-in-one cartridge for sample preparation and real time PCR in rapid influenza diagnosis, ” Lab on a Chip, 2010.

Page 70

As of September 2009, the World Health Organization reported that there are no less than a hundred and ten potential vaccines in development to battle a bird flu pandemic.

“Tables on the Clinical Trials of Pandemic Influenza Prototype Vaccines,” World Health Organization website.

During the 1918 flu pandemic there were none.

“1918 Influenza A (H1N1) Fact Sheet,” Federation of American Scientists website.

“We will learn so much more about ourselves and how we interact with our environment and our fellow humans. . . . I am optimistic that we will not be dehumanized but rehumanized, relieved of a few more ailments, better able to contemplate our place in the universe and transcend our brutal past.”

George Church, “Personal Genomics Will Arrive This Year, and With It a Revolutionary Wave of Volunteerism and Self-Knowledge,” Edge World Question Center website, 2007.

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