Here Be Dragons

Not so long ago, I posted about the first synthetic biology experiments and was rather blasé about the whole affair.  Somebody patched together a bacterium from artificially synthesized DNA – big deal.  It’s been a long time coming, and now biology is starting to catch up to chemistry and physics in terms of its place at the synthetic and creative science bench.  I firmly believe it’s part of the natural progression of humanity’s ability to understand and manipulate its environment.  But even though I’m a professional scientist, the whole idea of synthetic biology is still rather abstract.  I deal in inks and electricity, pigments and polymers.  Organs and organisms are pretty far removed from my research and my lab experience.

Yesterday, though, I got to see my own handiwork.  I work for an e-paper industry leader.  It is public knowledge that our displays run on encapsulated inks that respond to electricity.  I made some ink capsules last week, and yesterday I got to watch one of those capsules under a powerful microscope.  It was on a special sort of slide that allowed us to pass current through the sample, and we wanted to try to get a clear view of what happens to the ink inside the capsule when it responds to a signal from the electrode.  And so I watched my little proto-cell, complete with a visible cell wall, respond like a living thing to commands from the nervous system.  I could see the ink particles leap and swish around the interior, and the whole thing looked eerily, undeniably alive.

I had to quash the inane desire to shout, à la Tom Hanks in Castaway, “Look at what I have created!”  To quote my colleague, it was “some seriously cool shit.”  It also made me deeply, deeply uneasy in ways I can’t entirely explain.  It isn’t alive, of course.  It’s just ink inside a capsule.  But I think the whole exercise took the concept of synthetic life and made it much less abstract for me.  More than ever, my sense is that it is an area in which we must tread carefully, perhaps with an overabundance of caution, to avoid the accidental (or deliberate) creation of deadly pathogens.  It is an area of research that has almost unimaginable potential for good, but an equally large potential for catastrophe.  Here be dragons; best we tread lightly.

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