Egalitarian Synthetic Biology

The Chron reports on the “International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, known as iGEM[, which features teams of college students trying to] figure out whether biological organisms and devices can be built from a collection of standard, off-the-shelf parts, just as someone might build a kit plane or car.” One team made “BactoBlood,” which is “disease-free, self-replicating, and universally compatible.” Another opted to “engineer[] E. coli to convert complex sugars into butanol, a biofuel.” There are some great ideas for collaborative effort here:

iGEM’s founders are, via the efforts of hundreds of competitors, developing a library of DNA snippets, each with a specific function, that have been engineered to snap together with other library parts like genetic Legos. These “biobricks” are created according to strict guidelines so that each one is compatible with others in the collection, which is officially called the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. The registry contains about 2,000 biobricks.

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Many of the projects made for the 2007 contest are not geared for commercialization, and so the students will probably leave the Bactoblood and their other creations to focus on new ways to snap genetic parts together. The greatest legacy of their efforts will be the new biobricks they built. The newly formed BioBricks Foundation is drafting a public license that will ensure that the DNA bricks, which are freely available to researchers, remain open-source genetic parts.

Eventually the library of biobricks will reach a critical mass that will enable people to build sophisticated organisms that carry out useful functions, says Mr. Endy, of MIT. The open-source ideology underlying iGEM makes this arm of synthetic biology much more egalitarian than fields like genomics, where researchers need significant grants and major laboratory equipment to do research. . . .

I find it very impressive and exciting that the competition founders have managed to put together what Michel Bauwens has termed five key prerequisites for social production. Though I sometimes decry the excesses of scientism, I have to hand it to these educators for their vision and pragmatism. Would that more scholars in law, social science, and the humanities had the kind of cooperative spirit necessary to develop similar projects in these fields. (For a potential example in law, see the work of Ian Gallacher reviewed here.).