Synthetic Biology and Social Discomfort

On the way home from mushroom hunting, someone in the foraging group asks what I do for a living. That’s a tricky question. I could respond with the research I did for my PhD, which would be something like “biology” or “bioengineering” or “synthetic biology”, but none of these answers hold much meaning for people. So I go for the simplest answer that’s interesting. I tell them, “I built life.”

Some of the living things I’ve built.

I’m not exaggerating. My PhD was five and a half years working on engineering organisms that would improve human lives while using less of Earth’s resources. That goal is hundreds of separate projects in several lifetimes of work, so I focused on the part that serves as a lynchpin to them all: if we create a living thing with a function, how do we ensure it works as intended in complex environments? Like the plastic insulation protecting electrical wires, engineered life needs an isolating barrier protecting it from the surrounding natural life that could cause a short-circuit and stop working. Physical isolation tools exist, but they need to be maintained and have limited use. So for my PhD I engineered genetic isolation directly into cells, an insulation that they always carry with them. This genetic insulation protects the engineered cells from nature and vice-versa. And it means that we can one day use these engineered cells to create medicines, renewable energy sources, and environmental protection and repair systems.

A forest in Australia. It’s one of the many ecosystems I hope to preserve by creating living tools that help people live with more while taking from the environment less.

Back in the car, the response I get from the group is a mix of awe and horror, which is normal. Because I’m with a group of foragers, I can accurately predict the next step in the conversation. “It is just my opinion, but I don’t think we should be changing life, messing with it,” says the man beside me. I nod politely. Though the old knowledge of traditional cultures and new knowledge of academic research are entirely compatible and built on the same scientific methods, a mutual distain keeps the practitioners of these two camps aligned against each other. As scientist of academic research, I’ve lived this conversation a thousand times already. But it’s an important one, and it’s not about me convincing this guy that his opinion is wrong. It’s about understanding why.

By and large, people are uncomfortable with engineering life because they consider it special. We divide the world into living and non-living, and then spend much of our memorable lives interacting with the living: family, friends, pets, nature, food. We consider there to be some mysterious spark to life that we haven’t figured out, both philosophically and scientifically. To say you’re changing living things naturally raises hackles; the assumption is that in order to do that, you must have sacrificed your belief in the sanctity of life. That you don’t care about the consequences. Or, as quoted from Jurassic Park: “so preoccupied with whether or not [you] could, [you] didn’t stop to think if [you] should.”

Life is pernicious and controlling it can be hard: here, algae grows on the inside of a plastic cup on the beach.

But the truth is that we scientists think constantly about “whether you should.” It is the undocumented part of our lives, the part spent away from the laboratory equipment that everyone associates with us. In this time, four sources prompt us to consider the meaning and significance of our work. The first is from ourselves; as we’re naturally inclined to think (and overthink), we find ourselves imagining scenarios in which our research could be misused or go awry. The second is our peers and colleagues, who carry a mandate to question our work and ensure it is safe. The third is in grant proposals, where we meet the scrutiny of scientists and policy-makers who fund our work. And the fourth is in scenarios like the one occurring right now in the car, questions from our communities. Every one of these sources drives us to think about the impacts of our research and what could go wrong.

Yes, the conversations I have with people about my work “building life” can be uncomfortable. It’s not fun when someone tells you that your life’s work is objectionable, distasteful, an affront to society, or a one-way ticket to hell. But these conversations are important. They tell me what people are worried about, and by extension, what I should worry about in my work. These conversations are also a brief chance for me to explain how much we scientists care about the impact of our work, contrary to scientist stereotypes. It’s not easy, but somebody’s gotta do it.

My research on creating genetic insulation for engineered organisms. If you leave here with one thing, know that we scientists hear and share your fears. It’s why we do research.

[This is a cross-post from my current main blog, Neverending Everywhere, where I document travelling around the world.]

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