Today we get to the science and the issues surrounding it. Karl Deisseroth gave the first keynote lecture. For anyone who’s been asleep the past few years, Deisseroth’s lab at Stanford is at the cutting edge of a new kind of brain research. They invented optogenetics — turning brain circuits on and off (in mice, at present) with fiberoptic lasers. Their lab is putting out new methodology at an astounding rate. Their latest is Clarity: a way of making the brain tissue clear, so you can see all the neurons at once. In other words, you can get an image of the whole brain. I know I am not the first person to see that image of the whole brain and feel somehow inspired in the same way that those people in the 1960s who saw the picture of the “whole earth” began to understand the planet differently.
And Karl is sort of your ideal scientist in an almost incredible way: He is also a psychiatrist who treats patients. So his research is ultimately about curing diseases like depression and autism. And he is as modest as a only scientist in his position can be; he emphasizes how much we still have to learn.
But he is unabashedly engineering not just the little optical fibers, but the mice, themselves. He has collaborations with engineers. And the technology they invent is open source — they want labs around the world to adopt it, and they do. (disclaimer: one of his former postdocs, Ofer Yizhar, now has an optogenetics lab at the Weizmann Institute.) And he does think that some form of this technology could one day be used on humans.
The second session I went to was on synthetic biology and society. I have to say that it looked more interesting in the abstract, in part because Drew Endy did not make it. The participants were the head of a plant biology lab, a head scientist in a biotech company, a British coordinator for synthetic biology research and a biohacker from Sunnyvale. I think that Karl Deisseroth might have had something to teach all of them about discovery and sharing.
In part, I’m not sure that everyone was talking about the same biology. Getting yeast to produce vanilla is not quite the cutting edge of synthetic biology — it probably verges on plain old genetic engineering, which is a less PC word. The cool factor of the biohacker was lessened a bit by a protestor who came to make a point about sexual harassment in the biohacker community, as well as his continued references to the Universe. What I did find interesting and wanted to hear more about was the professor’s involvement in the biohacker scene. He was the one who mentioned that biohackers have designed their own, cheaper machinery, which they have then sold to others. Also, I agree with them that some sort of synthetic biology is in our future, but I do have a problem with scientists who say: “We are ethical, but what those Chinese do with our findings, who who knows?” That discussion on whether the stakeholders ((ie you and me) have a say did not really happen.