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Learning to “Fly” Biology

BIOLOGY IS TECHNOLOGY: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life. Robert H. Carlson. viii + 279 pp. Harvard University Press, 2010. $39.95.

In the preface to On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), Charles Babbage writes, “The present volume may be considered as one of the consequences that have resulted from the calculating engine, the construction of which I have been so long superintending.” Babbage is of course best known as the designer of one of the first programmable computers and an intellectual founder of computer science, but The Economy of Machinery was one of the best contemporaneous explorations of how mechanization was transforming Victorian industry and beginning to affect services and intellectual labor. For most entrepreneurs and engineers, spending years immersed in tough problems produces a kind of tunnel vision; for a few, fortunately, deep engagement becomes a foundation for broad thinking, and that was the case with Babbage.

In Biology Is Technology, Robert H. Carlson surveys the current state and future prospects of biological engineering, establishing himself as the Charles Babbage of biotechnology. Like Babbage, Carlson is a thoughtful participant in the innovations he describes. Indeed, readers should recognize that as an entrepreneur in the field he is writing about, Carlson is hardly a disinterested party—he stands to benefit from growing interest in such innovations as gene sequencing and genetically modified organisms. Here in Silicon Valley, his book will be read by venture capitalists as an investment prospectus and industry road map. Like Babbage’s book, Biology Is Technology describes a revolution that has been building for years and seems likely to take off in the next decade—a revolution that could transform the world and our views of it.

Biological engineering is nothing new. “Biology is technology,” Carlson declares on the opening page; indeed, he says, “Biology is the oldest technology.” Human beings coevolved with domesticated plants and animals, and one could argue that consciously manipulating other species for our own ends is one of the things that makes humans unique. So what’s new today? Until recently, if biology was technology, our tools were very blunt and could do very little damage if misused. Now the cost and power of tools for sequencing and splicing genes and distributing genetic modifications are following Moore’s Law—every year they get much cheaper and much more powerful. As a result, we can alter organisms much more quickly. Finally, biotechnology is following computing out of the university and corporate lab and into the garage and factory. “The advent of the home molecular-biology lab is not far off,” Carlson says. Cost-effective, biologically based production of goods that are currently manufactured on assembly lines or in refineries will also soon be possible.

Biology may be technology, but we’re not yet very skilled biological engineers. Carlson compares the state of the art to that of two more advanced fields, aircraft engineering and software development. Aerospace engineers work with mathematical models that predict the behavior of a plane’s components under the conditions expected during flight. These models are so precise that it’s now possible to design and test new planes entirely on a computer. The simulations are so good, in fact, that the underlying code can be used in the autopilot that controls a real plane in real time. Biologists, however, work with very rough theories that bear more resemblance to stories than to mathematical equations and have very little predictive power. “Just as we learned to fly aircraft,” Carlson declares, “so must we learn to ‘fly’ biology.” Thanks to cheap computing and simulation software, he says, “biological technology is in the process of moving from qualitative stories to quantitative models.”

The parallel growth of do-it-yourself biology, modeled on the open-source software movement, will provide a very different, but equally useful, set of resources: Lots of skilled laborers will be tinkering with genomes, sharing data with one another and adding to public repositories such as the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. In the next few years, Carlson predicts, we’ll understand genetic mechanisms well enough to think in terms of “BioBricks”—sections of DNA that can be assembled as easily as LEGO building blocks.

The movement of biological engineering from the ivory tower to, well, just about anywhere increases the risk of bioterror and “bioerror,” the accidental creation and distribution of pathogens. Carlson takes these threats seriously but argues against countering them by banning biotechnology. Attempts to outlaw easily manufactured, in-demand goods are ineffective, he believes; as experience with alcohol, marijuana and crystal methamphetamine shows, efforts at suppression encourage centralization and drive suppliers to become smarter and more savage. Most important, though, in an era in which high-school students have the tools to splice DNA, it is, as Carlson says, “unrealistic to think biological technologies can be isolated within the borders of any given country.”

The best hope lies in opening biology up by creating registries of genetic modifications, making biotechnology tools widely available and creating incentives to share discoveries rather than to hoard them. We must trust that the same technologies that will make it easier to create new diseases or weapons will be able to produce cures and countermeasures. A more open system, Carlson argues, would be able to respond more quickly to engineered pathogens and to deal more effectively with infectious diseases such as avian influenza. Geographically dispersed production facilities using genetically modified bacteria could make vaccines for new versions of infectious diseases as they emerge, and biologists could share their designs with colleagues in areas under threat. In short, Carlson envisions a highly distributed, highly networked system of scientists and small-scale factories that could evolve as quickly as the pathogens themselves. (When they’re not responding to emergencies, these factories could produce cheap vaccines for common diseases.) This sounds very modern, and it’s modeled explicitly on the open-source software and computer-security communities, both of which are models of far-flung, collaborative innovation.

In areas such as biofuels, synthetic biology and genetic engineering could usher in production methods that look more steampunk than cyberpunk. Today, biofuels compete with food: Farmers can plant corn for human or animal consumption, or corn bound for ethanol refineries. The problem with this system is that it places food and energy in competition with each other. In addition, by encouraging the clearing of forests for agriculture, the use of biofuels can contribute to environmental destruction. One way of improving the situation would be to create genetically modified organisms capable of converting into fuel the parts of plants that might otherwise be discarded. Then the land could simultaneously produce grains that would be fed to people and cellulose-rich stalks and leaves that would be fed to cars. An even more sophisticated approach would be to genetically design microbes that could feed on sugar or sewage and then brew jet fuel the way yeasts brew beer. This isn’t a far-fetched idea: Carlson thinks that it will be technically feasible to do this within the decade. (It wouldn’t be the first time brewing was at the cutting edge of a technology revolution: According to historian of technology Tom Misa, Victorian brewers were enthusiastic early adopters of steam power, economies of scale, and centralized production and management.)

Biological technology will eventually produce new insights in biological science, Carlson concludes. Indeed, one of the more provocative aspects of the book is its recasting of the relationship between science and technology. We usually assume that new scientific theories inspire new experiments, and that together theory and experiment lay the foundations for new technologies. Carlson tosses this aside. Scientific progress, he contends, isn’t driven by theory; it’s driven by faster technology and better data. “Biology has traditionally had more success when driven by good data rather than by theory,” he argues. Further, “every new measurement technique creates a new mode of interaction with biological systems.” In other words, the same tools that enable tinkering and engineering will eventually change not just our ability to design biology, but our ability to understand it.

Biology Is Technology is hardly the first book to present the idea that biology will drive a revolution in industry in the coming decades. Nor is the book comprehensive. Biomimicry is not mentioned, for example, even though the field’s efforts to apply biological designs to engineering problems offer an interesting complement to the work Carlson describes. Carlson also does not discuss the experiments in human augmentation described by Ramez Naam in More Than Human: How Technology Will Transform Us and Why We Should Embrace It and by Michael Chorost in Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, books that explore the relationship between biology and technology in another, more intimate dimension. And Carlson’s “trust the innovators” approach to knotty security and intellectual-property problems will strike some as boosterism. Nonetheless, Biology Is Technology is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the current state of biotechnology and the opportunities and dangers it may create.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and a visiting scholar in the Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at Stanford University. He is the author of Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions (Stanford University Press, 2002).

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