These days I often find myself feeling blessed that I’m not a kid growing up in today’s world. Change happens way too fast, and the amount of information that assaults the senses daily often feels tsunami-like. According to science writer, Jonah Lehrer, there are roughly 35,000 new neuroscience studies published every year alone! Who could possibly keep up?
Trying to prepare kids for the world of today deserves a purple heart and a medal of honor; preparing them for the world of tomorrow, that’s pretty far outside what my aging brain can even begin to imagine. Still, one “tomorrow” area where kids would be well-served by parents, teachers and clergy, would be in learning how to make intelligent decisions around the emerging field of synthetic biology, a field that’s changing so rapidly even its leaders find it challenging to keep current. According to civil engineering-trained, Stanford “alpha synthusiast” Drew Endy, “what occupies our finest minds today, will be a seventh-grade science project in five years. Or three…”
Leading the Synthetic Bio Charge
Endy leads the charge in the synthetic biology movement, and based upon some of today’s most recent research, one seventh-grade science project for tomorrow’s kids might very likely involve designing a wide array of features for your grandchildren! From eye and hair color, to height, to total number of desired brain cells – an extensive menu with a wide variety of options to choose from will be available for designing the children of the future. And if number of brain cells can be programmed for, presumably so can intelligence. As a parent, how much smarter would you want your kids to be than you are? And how should our kids go about making that decision? (There are currently billions of dollars being devoted to this research. Do a Google search of terms like “synthetic biology,” “gene synthesis” or “nanopore sequencing” to get a small sense).
Synthetic biologists effuse greatly about the positive human potential of their work. They combine elements of engineering, chemistry, computer science and molecular biology with the express intention of deliberately designing the living world, of “competing with God,” as the editors at Nature described them in 2007. Synthetic biologists have developed methods for programming living cells similar to the way a computer scientist programs a computer. Using that knowledge, they have created a new form of life – an “app” named “Synthia.” Synthia can replicate her own DNA. With millions of dollars supplied by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bioengineers at Amyris Biotechnolgies have already synthetically created a scarce drug, artemisinic acid, that promises to eradicate malaria in the world. These new life forms created almost daily, synthetic biologists catalog on the BioBricks registry. If your kids want to create their own unique life forms, all they need do is order a collection of BioBricks – akin to cellular legos – obtain a used automated DNA synthesizer on eBay for as little as $1000 (they used to cost $100,000 less than a decade ago), and voila!, they can begin experimenting with building their own unique little life forms.
To Design or Not to Design
Tomorrow’s kids are going to have to decide if engineering life forms is something human beings should be morally and ethically allowed to do. They’re going to need emotional, intellectual and spiritual resources in order to be able to rationally discuss the pros and cons of such pursuits without getting hijacked at every turn. And they won’t have much time – advancements currently occur at an exponential rate that exceeds Moore’s Law, necessitating its own measure – Carlson’s Curve.
I’m of two minds with respect to the creation of Designer Kids. As an old carpenter, I recognize that synthetic biology is just a tool, much like nuclear energy – one that can be used constructively or destructively. My ability to use tools skillfully has changed over time. Carpentry tools allow for such growth in skill, while only threatening a few personal body parts. Synthetic biology presents a different kind of tool, however. In addition to holding the promise of successfully addressing the nation’s number one killer – heart disease – using synthetic biology to perform “closed heart” operations – it is also a tool with the potential to not only end kids as we know them, but life itself as we know it. I’m not sure we’re wise enough or spiritually evolved enough to skillfully put such tools into widespread use before we accelerate completely out of control around Carlson’s Curve. And what does it say that we’re already developing a strategy for first responders to an anticipated bioterrorism emergency? If human beings are going to successfully reach the next stage of development, the kids we’re raising today will need to have greater intelligence and strength of heart than we had when we developed and dropped the first atomic bomb.