CSE Friday Speaker Series: Jack Byrne, Director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College
May 2, 2014
By Otto Nagengast ’17
Advances in biotechnology are blurring the line between reality and science fiction, particularly in the field of genomic technology. We now have the ability to manipulate DNA like Legos. We can excise DNA from one species of organism and paste into the DNA of another. College students compete in competitions to combine sequences of DNA or “bio bricks” in creative ways, such as bacteria cells that light up in the presence of toxins. But DNA technology should not be mistaken as a novel fringe science. Synthetic insulin is produced by E. coli bacteria whose DNA has been spliced with the human gene that codes to make insulin. Genetically modified food is simply food that has manipulated DNA.
Scientists, and increasingly business people, around the world are realizing the potential of biotechnology and are beginning to create innovative products. This push into unchartered territory has raised difficult questions about biotechnology in our society. On Friday May 5, the Director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College, Jack Byrne, gave what he described as a “journalistic” overview of the current state of the biotech field.
Dr. Rob Carlson has calculated that the global biotech industry is worth $110 billion, and is growing at 15 to 20 percent annually. In other words, the industry is doubling in size every four to five years. Byrne added that the US has a long history of innovation from small firms. Small companies developed everything from strobe lights to the personal computer to artificial skin. Biotech’s rapid growth has been fueled by innovation from companies like Amyris, which Jack described as a sort of Ben and Jerry’s of biotech. They are engaged in a multitude of projects that use their industrial synthetic biology technology. Amyris just partnered with Etihad Airlines to use biofuels on some flights to Brazil to help make the 2014 World Cup carbon neutral. Amyris has also recently partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to produce artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug, using industrial genomic technology.
The ever-falling costs of DNA synthesis have enabled the practice to move from professional labs and into people’s homes. Jack showed that one could buy a quality DNA synthesizer on Ebay for $1,200. Mail order synthesizing has been popular for several years, but there is an open-source movement growing around DNA synthesis, fuelled by increasing access. Scientists around the world like Ellen Jorgensen are opening up community biolabs to give people the opportunity to be part of the exciting new field. Some biotech ventures are pushing the very frontier of science. The Long Now Foundation’s Revive & Restore project is attempting to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction.
In Jack’s view, is not a question of if we have to deal with biotech, but how. In the very near future, our society will have to answer a host of questions raised by biotech. Do we have property rights for our own DNA? How will genetically modified organisms affect the delicate balance of nature? How will we regulate DNA research? There have been steps made to address some of the questions. For example, the White House released guidelines for biotech research to prevent “bio error” and “bio terror.” The Wildlife Conservation Society organized a conference last year to address the question: how will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?
While we are working to answer these essential questions, biotech continues to create innovations at a blistering pace. It was a pleasure hearing from Jack and getting up to speed on biotech, a field that will greatly shape our lives.