“…from the point of view of technology, a code generated within a digital computer is now self-replicating as the genome of a line of living cells. From the point of view of biology, a code generated by a living organism has been translated into a digital representation for replication, editing, and transmission to other cells.”
– George Dyson in response to Craig Venter’s announcement of “synthetic” life.
Commentary via John Robb:
“Now that we have a self-replicating biological platform (yeast — likely one of many different platforms that will be floated over the next couple of years) that can accommodate a completely synthetic genome, the race in on: towards an abundance in nearly every material or process that can be enabled via biological means.
For resilient communities, this will likely lead to the ability to replicate on the micro scale, many of the difficult to produce materials currently available only through a global industrial system. All that needs to be shared is the information necessary to do it. P2P pharmaceuticals and fuels?
There is a bright side to this: This technology makes resilient communities both more necessary and more viable at the same time.
The localization of production and the virtualization of everything else precludes the chance that damage from this technology will spread to a global scale via network amplification. It contains any potential damage to a small area. On the other hand, the virtualization of production and portability of discovery/productivity enabled by this technology will make it possible for very small communities to replicate the industrial power of a nation-state.
James Boyle, in an editorial for the Financial Times, also warns for the dangers of monopoly over the code of life:
“In an article written for the journal PloS Biology in 2007, my colleague Arti Rai and I explored the likely legal future of synthetic biology. We found reason to worry that precisely because synthetic biology looks both like software writing and genetic engineering, it might end up combining the expansive patent law aspects of both those technologies, with the troubling prospect of strong monopolies being created over the basic building blocks of science itself. Some of the patents being filed are astoundingly basic, the equivalent of patenting Boolean algebra right at the birth of computer science. With courts now reconsidering both business method and perhaps software patents, and patents over human genes, the future is an uncertain one.
In the world of software, the proprietary model faces competition from open source alternatives, free both in price and in that their code is openly available and can be scrutinized and rewritten. Internet Explorer competes with the open source browser, Firefox. Microsoft dominates the desktop operating system market but there is a Linux alternative. Microsoft web server software competes with (and trails) the open source offerings from Apache and others. The same is true in the world of synthetic biology. The Biobricks Foundation is a nonprofit founded by scientists who are keenly aware of the parallels to the software world. They want to create an open source collection of standard biological parts, to make sure in other words, that the basic building blocks, the standard tools of this new world of biological science, remain “open” in a scientific commons. But their efforts, too, are rendered uncertain by the threat of overbroad patents on foundational technologies.
Innovation in synthetic biology has the potential to produce extraordinary scientific advances, helping to cure diseases, to engage in benign environmental engineering and biofuel development and much, much more. Patents will have an important role to play in that process – they will encourage investment and commercialization in ways that are socially beneficial. But patents that are handed out at too fundamental a layer could actually hurt science, limit research and slow down technological innovation. This is where the sloppiness of the reporting about the creation of artificial life has hurt public debate. The danger isn’t that Craig Venter has become God, it is that he might become Bill Gates. We do not want a monopolist over the code of life.”