The Synthetic Bestiary – Synthetic Biology, Genetic Engineering, and The Future

Glowing Plants: An Interview With Antony Evans

Glowing Plant

Glowing Plants‘ is a kickstarter project which is set to create the first publicly available bioluminescent plants. To do this, they will be adding the luciferase-luciferin gene system into the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana. Expanding on previous work done by the State University of New York and the University of Cambridge iGEM team, this synthetic biology project is truly exciting. What makes this project different is how widespread these plants will be disseminated, with over 5000 backers already. This project is the most successful biological crowdfunded campaign ever, and is setting a precedent for future projects which might seek funding this way.

I was lucky enough to get an interview with Antony Evans the project manager of Glowing Plants. Check out the kickstarter video for glowing plants and our exclusive interview after the break.

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Video of the Week #4: Rachel Armstrong on Earth’s Bright Future (London Real)

Rachel Armstrong London Real

Dr. Rachel Armstrong was recently interviewed on London Real about her visions of the future – you can find the video after the break! Dr. Armstrong is the co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) – and has a strong focus on the concept of “living architecture”. She is also a TED fellow, and as an added bonus we’ve embedded her TED talk: “Architecture that repairs itself?” below as well.

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The Role of Gender and Sex In Sport

This article contains my personal opinions and musings.

Today is the start of the London 2012 Summer Olympics. This year’s olympics has faced a number of controversies – one of which is somewhat pertinent to biology, the issue of gender and sex. The olympics, like many sporting institutions, has long separated competitors into two main categories – male and female. This would be simple, if sex determination was so discrete. But sex is not discrete, it is a spectrum which at best can be described as two common clusters of phenotypes around what we call ‘male’ and ‘female’. Even chromosomal sex is not as simple as XX vs XY – there are common cases of XXY and XYY and other varieties. Genitals don’t always follow the chromosomal pattern either, and hormone diversity (which drives development) creates an effective continuum between male and female. Individuals significantly between both sexes are often referred to as “intersex” but even then the line between intersex and being one sex or another is a blurred one.

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Framing the Synthetic Biology Ethics Debate

In an opinion piece posted on Monday, Claire Marris and Nikolas Rose (sociologists at King’s College, London) argue that the ethics debate over synthetic biology needs to “get real” and focus on the current applications of the technology. Check out the article here.

Commentators instead focus on potential reckless use or misuse, overestimate the pathogenic possibilities, and worry about deep questions such as: “Do we have the right to play God?”. These worries are the flip side of grand claims about synthetic biology’s imminent ability to solve challenges in health, environment and energy. Utopias and dystopias seem to be the only scenarios possible.

This way of framing discussions is unhelpful. It is an example of “speculative ethics” that distracts us from less exciting but more pressing questions. What are synthetic biologists actually doing? How easy, or difficult, is it proving? What applications are they realistically going to develop in the short to medium term? What is their intended purpose, and to what extent could these contribute to the public good?

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Juan Enriquez: Genomics, Energy, and Transhumanism

Juan Enriquez is a well respected futurist – who specifically looks at biotechnology and its role in the future. He is the founding director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School, CEO of Biotechnomy LCC, and the writer of numerous influential articles. Over the past decade he has given four TED talks, covering different visions of the future. After the break you can find each of his talks – including his latest talk from TED (posted yesterday): “Will our kids be a different species?”. These are definitely mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the future.

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