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Synthetic biology: the inheritance of my generation

I don’t remember the first time I learned about synthetic biology because I didn’t understand why it mattered. In the modern-day style of science journalism that borders on entertainment, it seems as if most scientific advancements are used to foretell extravagant futures and then are never heard from again.

What I mistook for a passing trend is what now gives me hope. Instead of fading from memory, every achievement makes the future more tangible. The possibility that living things may be mechanical, programmable, and vastly unknowable drives the vision of my career and of the future.

Biological solutions for problems in a biological world

More than ever, the systemic and slowly unfolding problems in our world today will define my generation. From petroleum-based production to antibiotic resistance to the need to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we are converging upon our day of reckoning.

Unlike steam, coal, or electricity, I see the power of synthetic biology in the fact that people and our planet are biological. While humans have built industries on top of petroleum-based chemistry, cells and their enzymes are the original chemists.

In healthcare, a better understanding of biology will herald new drug discovery, living medicines, personalized healthcare, and gene therapy. We could combat climate change by engineering photosynthesis to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to biofuel or animal feed. And if we leave Earth, engineering biology will enable us to bring life to barren planets.

Many of these potential solutions exist because we have anticipated the impending problems they might solve. Therefore, what alarms me more are the emerging issues that can’t be quantified, modeled, or predicted. 

Re-engineering life, re-engineering society

In many ways, the movements against vaccination, climate change, and genetically modified organisms show how science is powerless in the face of disbelief. In the distance between the ivory towers and an average person, information travels from scientific papers to news articles and is lost to the wilderness of the Internet.

Marketing campaigns, social media, and sensationalist articles designed to spread are the fittest means of information transfer in the competition for human attention, and science has been outcompeted. As a result, little remains between what is true and what feels true at a time when crucial decisions must be made regarding the future of our planet.

I’m studying to be an engineer. That implies I should take pride in unintelligible user interfaces and evade social interaction. However, the disconnect between science and society may have greater consequences now than at any previous point in history.

I write not only because I see how opinions are shaped, but also to explore and understand the implications of my own work. If there is one common theme in science fiction, it’s that the future may produce incredible technologies but is ultimately dystopian.

There is a deep-seated and somewhat existential fear that opening Pandora’s box to solve one problem will lead to greater tragedies. Even if they may not be a direct result of my actions, I know I will share the responsibility. With the increasingly complex ethical implications of engineering life, it is clear that innovation in synthetic biology must be matched by equally fundamental changes in the structure and discourse of society.

It’s not every day that a person can choose to enter a field that scares her as much as it gives her hope. But there are questions to be asked that have no answer, and it would be a tragedy to turn away from the greatest challenge of them all.

The space between worlds

Above all, I am privileged to participate at a point in the human era that is the revolution of our times, when the arrival of multidisciplinary technologies has finally unlocked the engineering of biology, and when there is still no precedent for what this sprawling infant industry will become.

This is the inheritance of my generation: not only the accumulated consequences of human action and inaction, but also the beginnings of extraordinary tools and the shoulders of giants upon which we stand.

Within this nebula, I hope to combine computer science, human-centered design, and my foundation in the reverence for living systems to create devices I cannot yet imagine. I run towards an intersection I do not see clearly. In this way, like synthetic biology, I occupy the bridge and the space between worlds.

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Desiree Ho

Desiree Ho

Desiree is an undergraduate researcher in the Arkin Lab at UC Berkeley who is inspired by science fiction and space. Beyond pursuing some combination of bioengineering and computer science, she is involved in science communication and digital design.

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