Analysis If your news filter is set to "bioterrorism" you may have seen a recent column by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian. Spurred by a London visit by Craig Venter, it was the usual journalistic script on synthetic biology.
Having delved into Lexis, we can say with authority that a couple of hundred major stories have run on synbio in the last two years. They fall into two categories: Rewritten press releases distributed by newspapers, made only for the purpose of announcing the synthetic biologist and how world-changing his research effort/company will be; and stories explaining how synthetic biologists will revitalise the world, but bad synbiologists will be making diseases, bioterrors and bio-errors, killing millions.
Margaret Atwood wrote a hack sci-fi novel, Oryx and Crake, on this in 2005. The most amusing part was the premise that only two jobs will exist in the future - a person could be a synthetic biologist, or an ad copywriter doing promotions for synbio companies. This showed Atwood had an appreciation for the megalomania in press release news on the subject.
Transformer of worlds
For the balance of the book, Atwood makes small talk about the entertainments the future internet will provide - animal snuff sites, deathrowlive.com - then kills off almost everyone with a manmade plague put into pills for increasing sexual potency.
"So beware of how we are being sold this scientific revolution with pledges to help Africa's poor and ease global warming," wrote Bunting in the Guardian on 22 October. "The poster child for synbio is the production of a cheap anti-malarial drug... equally plausible are bacteria that could mop up oil spills or extract heavy metal contamination from soil."
Inevitably, Bunting had to play the "world transformed" card. Cellulose will be easily converted to ethanol, "bacteria... could soak up carbon dioxide".
"How synbio could go wrong keeps even dedicated synthetic biologists awake at night," it continued.
The more one reads the proclamations from synthetic biologists, the more one finds they seem to have in common with the claims delivered by civilian egotists at the Pentagon who went on about a revolution in military affairs before Iraq went bad.
Biology, in fact all science, is given new starch. And anything fantastic that can be imagined will happen. The obstinacy of nature, results dictated from Murphy's Law in which experiments simply do not work - or actually do work, but just in ways that are no more or less productive than previously - is not in this story.
"It is a love of comfort, not to say sluggishness, that characterises those who protest against revolutionary innovations that happen to demand fresh efforts in the way of intellect, physical striving, and resolution."
This quote, from Heinz Guderian's mediocre book Achtung-Panzer!, even found its way into my mailbox this year as part of a puffed-up treatise on bioterrorism and the cure for it from the melding of alleged American scientific can-do-it-tiveness and synbio. (No name given since this writer has no desire to see another like it. Google part of the Guderian quote for a link. Who knew the Fuhrer's Panzer leader was such a great scientist?)
The script on synbio also demands the saluting of Amyris Biotechnologies, founded by Jay Keasling, as the firm which will cure malaria, according to the New York Times. The Times, by the way, appears to have had the greatest number of significant suck-up pieces on synbio published in newspaperland in 2007. If the number of times Amyris's work on producing a new source of the anti-malarial, artemisinin, is the criteria by which such a thing is accomplished, malaria's trouncing is in the bag; with the answer to global warming as the icing on the cake.