“The history of any given technology is extraordinarily complex.”
–Rob Carlson, Biology is Technology.
Analyzing the history of a technology requires a complex look at the social, economic, and political context in which it emerged, and the reciprocal influences that the developing technology exerts on these factors. Predicting what the future of a technology will be like, how it will affect the economy and understanding the potential risks and payoffs is much much harder. Rob Carlson’s new book, Biology is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life takes on this challenge, looking at the recent history and potential future of synthetic biology and biological engineering from the perspective of a biotech entrepreneur, discussing the science, the economics, and the politics of this emerging technology. Through a series of case studies, the book highlights many of the difficult contradictions inherent in the development of biological technologies.
Biology is becoming easier to work with every day, enabling high school students and other non-experts to do work that was only accessible by elite level scientists only a few years ago. This democratization of science is seen by scientists and the general public as both a positive development and a potential threat. Having more people interested in and participating in biology will undoubtedly push the boundaries of our knowledge and our ability to engineer cells, but will also increases the likelihood of accidental or intentional release of dangerous pathogens or toxins. While describing how easy it has become to engineer biology in one’s garage, Carlson also claims that the perceived threat opened up by easy access biological technologies is minimal, because it is still very hard to actually make any changes to genomes, especially to make something more dangerous than it already is. Carlson argues that further improvement of biological technologies is necessary to combat first and foremost natural pandemics–”nature is the bioterrorist”–as well as the possible emergence of synthetic threats from accidental release of biotech products or intentional malicious design of new pathogens, however unlikely they may be. This contradictory stance–biology is easy for me but too hard for terrorists–is common in the synthetic biology community that seeks to hype technological gains while minimizing the perception of risks.
The bright future of synthetic biology is described in terms of the trajectory of technological progress in other fields, extrapolated to reflect the likely development of future biological technologies. Carlson argues that progress in biological technologies will likely follow similar trajectories as aviation and computing in the twentieth century, following “technology lines” from dreams and tinkering, to mature direct design-to-build. Later in the book, however, Carlson warns about projecting the success of old technologies onto biotechnology. Biology isn’t rocket science, and “we should be wary of inherited assumptions that the future of biological production will look like historical industrial production. Broadly distributed production using locally available feedstocks could fundamentally alter the way we think about logistics within our economy.” Looking at the development of aviation and computers, two technologies that had a tremendous impact on the outcomes of the First and Second World Wars, respectively, may further complicate the extrapolation of technology lines. Carlson admits that “it is by no means clear that there can be a unified description of innovation or of the evolution of technolgy. Specific technologies arise in the context of history and the various social, economic, and political pressures of the day” (emphasis in original).
Given the difficulty of predicting the future of biological technology, what kind of scientific, economic, political, and social changes are needed to foster true innovation in biotechnology? As a small-scale “garage” entrepreneur working to design and market a “tool that provides a new quantitative capability in molecular biology”, Carlson emphasizes the importance of having quantitative information about biological systems in order to adequately model new designs in a rigorous, predictive manner. Most current models of how biological systems work “lack quantitative predictive power, whereas engineering generally requires a framework of quantitative models based on quantitative experiments.” Moreover, as a start-up entrepreneur, Carlson has a complicated relationship with the ideas of “open science”, praising the efforts of the BioBricks Foundation, the Registry of Biological Parts, and iGEM for their emphasis on open access and free information, but is deliberately vague in describing his own work and bemoans the fact that much of the cost of developing a new product is in filing a patent. The book was finished before the announcement of the BioBricks Public Agreement and the BIOFAB, which are intended to provide a legal framework and a source of well-characterized, open-access parts for open synthetic biology, but many of the issues brought up in the book still remain. Can there be an open source science in parallel with large biotech companies with strong financial interests in new synthetic biology parts and devices? Do patents on biological technologies stifle or foster innovation? Will the biotech industry be structured like the computer industry, where small companies bring innovative new ideas to the market, but need the resources of much larger companies to develop the idea into a product and protect intellectual property? Will students, hackers, and hobbyists be able to contribute to biological technology the way that they contribute to software technology today?
The biggest question the book raised for me though was is biology really technology? In discussing Lawrence Lessig’s belief that patents stifle creativity, Carlson writes: “These words are bold, provocative, and perhaps either offensive or inspiring, depending on the reader’s point of view…But that is an argument to be made, not accepted outright.” This is exactly how I feel about Carlson’s assertion that biology is technology. Do we limit the power of biological systems by seeing them only in terms of human technologies? Are living things “special”? Do technologies “evolve”? Throughout the book the language used to describe biological systems is that of design, intent, purpose, and appropriation, while technology is described as progressing inevitably, outside of the control of human intent, literally evolving by natural selection. This is a dangerous view, one that privileges technological “progress” as special, revolutionary, and uncontrollable, while defining the control and appropriation of biology as “natural”. Indeed Carlson goes so far as to make the bold and provocative statement that “Biological technologies in human hands are value neutral–neither intrinsically good nor bad–because the technologies that humans use are often adopted or adapted from nature rather than invented.” For a book called Biology is Technology Carlson spends very little time making arguments for this controversial point, and I have to say, I’m not convinced.