At the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, a group of academics attempt to unravel the likely cause of the end of the world. The top contenders, so called ‘global catastrophic risks’, include the sci fi stalwart totalitarianism, cold war favourite nuclear war and Jeremy Clarkson bugbear global warming. Also on the list is the threat arising from misuse of biotechnology. In an interview with the BBC in March of this year, the director of the FHI, Nick Bostrom, stated that synthetic biology was a primary concern in this area (along with artificial intelligence and nanotechnology). With these technologies advancing at such a rate, he argues, we are not fully able to comprehend the potential dangers of the tools we develop. This was likened to ‘a dangerous weapon in the hands of a child’ by Bostrom.
Admittedly, these guys are paid good money to let us know that the end is nigh. They are bound to err on the side of caution. But they’re not the only people raising such concerns
Synthetic Biology was not a term I’d ever come across before my boyfriend announced he was taking a job working on it. So, being a curious type, I looked it up. According to syntheticbiology.org (the natural first calling point for lazy googlers) synthetic biology is A) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, or B) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. To translate from jargon, synthetic biologists aim to manipulate existing biological ‘parts’ and put them together in new ways to generate organisms with new functions. This still sounds pretty vague to me, but it’s important to pay attention to synthetic biology. Regardless of how familiar you are
My name is Jenny and I am a developmental biologist. It’s a hopeless addiction, brought about by the awe inspiring process of making a baby. Get you mind out of the gutter! I’m talking about the process by which a single egg cell, fertilised by a single sperm, grows and divides over and over again to make the 100,000,000,000,000 cells present in a human body. What’s more, these cells don’t just replicate but also somehow organise themselves into lungs, a heart, bones, blood, eyes, a brain and much more. The day that I realised that I could get paid to spend my time trying to understand how this happens was the day I felt that I was finally onto a winner.