Drew Endy: Synthetic Biology – What Should We Be Vibrating About? at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

In 1972, the musical group Funkadelic released one of my favorite songs, “Biological Speculation”. If you don’t know the song, I want to share it at the beginning of the course with you. We’re just biological speculation, sitting here, vibrating. And we don’t know what were vibrating about. Also in 1972 and 1973, researchers at Stanford and at San Francisco invented what became known as Genetic Engineering, the ability to take natural pieces of DNA and recombine them to make new chimeric molecules. Oh, that’s interesting. How would we, members of the clan of opposable thumbs who like to do things apply this new tool if we don’t know what we’re vibrating about?

Forty years have gone by, roughly, it’s been a generation of genetic engineering and we’ve already heard today that it’s been used. We’ve made foods. We’ve made medicines. We’ve made stuff, recombinant insulin for treating diabetes, engineered L-lysine for better laundry detergents to wash your clothes, and even, better ice-cream. Those anti-freeze proteins from fish that go in the ice-cream, so you don’t get the big ice crystals in your low-fat ice-cream. Isn’t it funny that ice-cream isn’t marketed as Nemo bits? “Mommy, mommy, mommy, I want some Nemo bit ice-cream!” Oh, it’s strange, you know, this technology, as we’ve explored it, we haven’t always been comfortable with it. And there are good reasons for that: maybe it’s not safe, maybe it disrupts the purity, maybe it messes up the normative aspects of nature. Maybe it’s just new.

How could we do better? How could we start to talk in new ways about biotechnology? I don’t know. And I thought about that a lot. One of the things that I had to confront is I’m not always sure how I make decisions, and how I determine whether or not a choice I’m facing results in a good decision. And if I can’t answer that question is very hard for me to consider any technology, especially living technology, and decide what to do with it. As best as I can figure it out, I together with my wife, who is also a biotechnologist, talked about this a lot, we’ve come up with a framework for thinking about whether or not we are making good decisions.

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And the way we’ve come up with this framework is to listen to nature, to return to nature, and to try and understand biology, actually. And what I mean by that – this will sound a little hokey and should sound a little bit abstract, but then I’ll try to make it real for you – biology, as I understand it, exists on an energy gradient: we’re powered from the stars, from the Sun, from the thermovents; and living systems tap into this flux, this flow of energy, and they are somehow able to do something incredible. They are able to make patterns that persist over time from one generation to the next. Very improbable patterns.

If you were talking to a chemist about what a system should do, thermodynamically speaking, it just all blurs away. But life is somehow capturing this energy gradient and making these improbable patterns that persist over time from one generation to the next. That’s what it means to me to be alive. And if I believe that, then I can start to evaluate, “Am I making a good decision or a bad decision?”

What I want to be doing is I want to be alive, I want to be contributing to life. If I do something, and it’s more likely to lead to more improbability, more improbable patterns that continue to thrive and exist, then that was a good decision. I’m not expecting all of you to be satisfied by that, that’s just me being honest with you. What does that have to do with making our civilization work, thinking about how to make decisions about advancing biotechnology? When I was biking in this morning to come over here, I was looking at the pine tree, in the front yard of our house. We live over in Menlo Park. And it’s that time of year where the pine tree is doing this. It’s growing these objects. (whispers) They’re called pine cones.

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For the longest time, until about two years ago, I didn’t think very much about my pine tree – that’s not really mine, it’s sort of in front of my yard, and whatever that means – but over the last couple of years, I haven’t been able to escape what’s going on: in a few short weeks, the tree will grow hundreds if not thousands of these objects, that will become quite big, almost as big as a can of tennis balls. What do I do with this? Nothing. The winds come in the fall, it falls off, it gets swept up and composted.

As I’ve looked into this across the town of Menlo Park, the gardens and lawns of Menlo Park, we produce about 500 pounds per person per year of garden clippings in a town of 32,000 people, that’s 16 million pounds of matter compiled from the atmosphere. This is actually a state-of-the-art nanotechnology; what could I do with it? Maybe I could change how we make things. Maybe I could– could I reprogram my pine tree to grow computer chips? Could this turn into something different? That sounds really improbable.

Well, engineering is often times about solving problems, but at a meta-level, what engineering is also about, is getting better at solving problems. And so, in 2002, we set out to ask the question: could we make living matter fully engineerable? Could we make life programmable? Could I ever get to a future where I can grow computer chips in my front yard? Sounds implausible.

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