“Project Fear,” a strategy used by anti-Brexit forces in the UK, was an attempt to save the status quo by appealing to fears, worst-case scenarios, and the gravest predictions. It’s a common tactic for resisting change. In June, a wave of similarly dark headlines struck a fledgling area of science that could otherwise become the centrepiece in the story of our century: synthetic biology.
The Telegraph reported “Biological weapons ‘easy to develop’ due to rapid advances in technology, scientists warn Pentagon.” And Futurism reported “Synthetic Biological Weapons May Be Coming. Here’s How to Fight Them.” Meanwhile, an article in Laboratory Equipment claimed that the “Rise of Synthetic Biology Means Governments Unprepared for Biowarfare.” A large number of other reports appeared at the same time, speculating about the misuse of synthetic biology. Such items can be traced back to a report at the US Department of Defense, where there were fears an existing virus like smallpox could be reverse-engineered and used as a biological weapon.
Synthetic biology does make it significantly easier to create a biological weapon, and the first offenders will be government entities themselves, such as the Department of Defense. However, it also represents a field that can expand the availability of medical treatments and provide renewable fuels. While richer countries and sectors of society may have reasons to fear the disruptive and dangerous qualities of synthetic biology, the promises of this field are of infinite value to the rest of the world.
Synthetic biology is going to lead to disruptive innovation, the most socially significant examples of which will appear in the pharmaceutical and energy sectors. According to predictions by J. Craig Venter, the synthetic biologist who decoded the human genome, synthetic biology’s products will move at the “speed of light,” no more than codes transmitted from machine to machine allowing the end product to be assembled at home. This would make synthetic biology a little like early personal computing and printing, used by individuals at home. Pharmaceuticals would be downloaded, eventually for free.
According to Genspace director Ellen Jorgensen, the terrifying ease of creating biological products is the goal of the field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is the same as genetic engineering, already widespread, but it “allows the standardization and automation of the process” for increased precision and speed. Synthetic biology makes “the pieces of DNA easier to assemble, effectively modularizing them” or “turning biology into a LEGO-like system.” This speed and ease of use presents lots of potential for disruption. If such projects become widespread, they could defeat monopolistic big pharma by surrendering all the creative tools to consumers or at least much smaller businesses.
Synthetic biology could have even bigger consequences too. Ever-improving bio-fuels may replace the petroleum industry and make the production of fuel possible at home. This could help households thrive in poorer countries and even end their dependence on the richer countries with accrued technological advantages. Using designer bacteria, high-density fuels are likely to eventually be brewed from abundant feedstocks and even waste. Trials by Exxon Mobil using pools of cyanobacteria suggest even this energy giant takes the idea seriously, so the production of high-density fuels using synthetic biology is being competently planned for already. Were the practice to become possible in farms and even at home, it would surely eliminate much of the need for costly pipelines. Homebrew fuels and other chemicals could reduce the need for national strategies aimed at maintaining the energy supply, as well as remove the need for costly mining and refining work in poor countries by exploitative multinational corporations.
Alarm around synthetic biology reflects the threat this field poses to the concentrated power and increasingly-strained mandate of the nation-state. Government and corporate circles consistently portray anything that disrupts the concentration of their power and profitability as lawlessness tantamount to terrorism. There need not be evidence of an actual threat for them to sound the alarm.
We can expect attempts to stifle the most anti-monopoly and anti-empire effects of these products and services to arise in parallel with the future achievements of synthetic biologists in medicine and energy. Fear surrounding biological weapons will be cited to justify an increase in regulation. Rulings will be enforced by states to prevent the realities of synthetic biology from easing the lives of most people in the world. Sharing of these products – even information about them – will be the most forbidden act of all. Biological piracy will be likened by governments to terrorism. Artificial scarcity will be maintained to sustain profits, privileges, and power.
National governments and supranational corporations share a common contempt for freedom of information and the independence of the individual. Indeed they fear synthetic biology and popular access to it for the same reasons the Roman Catholic Church might have feared the popular spread of printed books. This fear is not misplaced, as social systems are heavily influenced by the extent of the democratization of knowledge. Democratizing the threads of life itself for the masses to weave into new forms would shake society and states more than the printing of any number of books did.
States are concerned, following their current loss of control over the digital media (which empowered whistleblowers and dissidents), that the next loss of control will undermine their possession of physical products and resources. The will of history is not with them, but moves us inexorably towards stronger individuals and weaker authority structures. Technology and its miniaturization, finally to a microscopic scale, can only strengthen such results by becoming available to more people. Ultimately, the conservation of power and profit will give way to the anarchy of our digital culture. The threat from synthetic biology is good for us and bad for them.