Legos for Life

While reading a story about attempts to build synthetic DNA, I almost laughed out loud at the following quote:

“This raises a range of big questions about what nature is and what it could be,” said Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies science’s effects on society. “Evolutionary processes are no longer seen as sacred or inviolable. People in labs are figuring them out so they can improve upon them for different purposes.”

I doubt actual sacredness is what Professor Rainbow had in mind here—he probably meant ‘sacred’ in the academic sense, a synonym for ‘inviolable.’ But if we banish the Holy One from our society, no one can apply the word ‘sacred’ to anything. At least, not in its true sense, as holy, related to something or someone wholly other. Likewise, remove the ethical underpinnings of a culture, as we have from ours, and nothing can remain ‘inviolable.’

Least of all “processes”!

I doubt I’m the only person uneasy with the idea of BioBricks, “interchangeable genetic components…which students and others are already popping into cells like Lego pieces.” Just the idea of standardized genetic material makes the prospect of a much more frightening future possible.

According to the Web site:

“Using BioBrick™ standard biological parts, a synthetic biologist or biological engineer can already, to some extent, program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer. The DNA sequence information and other characteristics of BioBrick™ standard biological parts are made available to the public free of charge currently via MIT’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

If “Registry of Standard Biological Parts” wasn’t so Huxleyan, I wouldn’t know where to begin. And even though it is very Brave New World, I’m not sure what more to say. Since the sites make it sound like new organisms are waiting to burst on the scene, I thought immediately of Han Solo (constructed in Legos at the head of this story), his surprise and longing for escape frozen in carbonite.

[Ed. note: Okay, that’s a lie. Author Googled Legos, that picture came up, and I had to use it.]

A couple of other choice quotes from the story:

“I see a cell as a chassis and power supply for the artificial systems we are putting together,” said Tom Knight of MIT, who likes to compare the state of cell biology today to that of mechanical engineering in 1864. That is when the United States began to adopt standardized thread sizes for nuts and bolts, an advance that allowed the construction of complex devices from simple, interchangeable parts.

The [DNA synthesis] technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before “bio hackers” working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.

With Venter’s company [Synthetic Genomics] openly hoping to develop “an operating system for biologically-based software,” some fear it is seeking synthetic hegemony.


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