Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Science’ Category

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From the City to the Great Basin: a Trip to Long Now’s Mountain in Nevada

Posted on Thursday, January 8th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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The Big Here video documenting a drive from San Francisco to Mount Washington in eastern Nevada was made in 02009 and shown as a Long Short before Stewart Brand’s Rethinking Green SALT talk. We showed it again this week at The Great Basin in the Anthropocene talk by Scotty Strachan at The Interval. That event focused on the larger region that includes Mount Washington.

The mount Washington site was originally purchased as a potential site for a monument scale 10,000 Year Clock to act as an icon to long-term thinking. The first of these Clocks is now underway in Texas (see longnow.org/clock/ for more details), and Long Now remains involved in this fascinating, important region of eastern Nevada.

Our Mount Washington property is home to the largest population of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones, amongst the oldest living things on Earth, are a symbol of The Long Now. And Long Now is working with scientists, like Scotty Strachan, at University of Nevada, Reno to study these bristlecones for insights into the last 10,000 years of climate amongst other research efforts.

Mt Washington bristlecone -- Scotty Strachan at The IntervalPhoto of Mount Washington by Scotty Strachan

Jesse Ausubel Seminar Primer

Posted on Tuesday, January 6th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Seminars   chat 0 Comments

On Tuesday, January 13, Jesse Ausubel will present Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing Through Concentrating Human Activities, as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-Term Thinking. Each month the Seminar Primer gives you some background information about the speaker, including links to learn even more.

Carbon_Emissions_1

The stories and scary graphs aren’t hard to find: the global industrialization that has been taking place since the middle of the 19th century has had a disastrous effect on our environment. It has led to massive deforestation, depletion of other natural resources, and a (resulting) rise in greenhouse gases not seen in millions of years.

But Jesse Ausubel counters this gloom with a bit of optimism. He argues that modernity and technology are not necessarily the unusually destructive forces we make them out to be. Humans were impacting the world around them long before we first started burning fossil fuels to power large-scale factories. And the technological progress we’ve made since then, Ausubel suggests, can actually – and might very well – help us diminish our harmful environmental footprint.

Ausubel is an environmental scientist who combines research with an active policy agenda. He has played an important role in bringing environmental, ecological, and climate issues to the attention of governments and scientific agencies, and has been instrumental in the formulation of US and international climate research programs. He helped organize the first United Nations World Climate Conference in 01979 – the event that first brought the issue of global warming to governments’ attention – and served on a variety of federal research agencies throughout the 01980s and 90s.

Census_Of_Marine_Life_Logo

Through his work with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where he is a science advisor and former Vice President of Programs, Ausubel has pursued several efforts at documenting and conserving biodiversity. He helped develop the Census of Marine Life, an international mission to study the distribution, diversity, and abundance of life in Earth’s seas and oceans. The census has so far discovered numerous previously unknown species, and species thought to have gone extinct millennia ago. Honoring Ausubel’s efforts, a recently discovered deep-sea lobster was named Ausubel’s Mighty Clawed Lobster (or dinochelus ausubeli).

dinochelus_ausubeli

In addition, Ausubel is a co-founder of the Barcode of Life – an initiative to begin using very short genomic sequences (rather than morphological characteristics) as universal ‘barcodes’ for species identification. He is also founding chair of the Encyclopedia of Life, a wikipedia-like website, first proposed by former SALT speaker E.O. Wilson, that aims to catalog all species of life on earth.

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Ausubel is currently Senior Research Associate and Director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, where he studies how human technological and economic development interact with the environment. He is considered a founder of the field of Industrial Ecology (and his 01989 textbook, Technology & Environment, is accepted as one of the sub-discipline’s foundational texts).

Ausubel argues that industrial development can help us diminish our harmful environmental footprint, because it always tends toward greater efficiency. As the New York Times reported in 02011,

In a recent interview in his office at Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Ausubel explained his view that the environment will be protected, not harmed, by technology. Over the long run, he notes, the economy requires more efficient forms of energy, and these are inherently sparing of the environment. Cities used to use wood for heat and hay for transport fuel. But the required volumes of wood and horse feed soon led to more compact fuels like coal and oil.


Jesse Ausubel : Why Renewables are Not Green from Arcos Films on Vimeo.
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As industry evolves, Ausubel argues, it constantly finds ways to use fewer material resources for every unit of production, thus decreasing its consumption of the world’s natural resources, including land. In other words, industrial development follows a path of dematerialization. Ausubel claims it is also on a course of decarbonization: a consistent and gradual replacement of carbon-based fuels by much more efficient hydrogen-based ones. Indeed, Ausubel is an advocate of nuclear power as a highly efficient source of energy, and a useful alternative that can help us spur society’s decarbonization along.

In a landmark paper, for which Ausubel won The Breakthrough Institute’s 02014 Paradigm Award, Ausubel concludes:

The builders of the beautiful home of the US National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., inscribed it with the epigraph, “To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.” Finally, after a very long preparation, our science and technology are ready also to reconcile our economy and the environment … In fact, long before environmental policy became conscious of itself, the system had set decarbonization in motion. A highly efficient hydrogen economy, landless agriculture, industrial ecosystems in which waste virtually disappears: over the coming century these can enable large, prosperous human populations to co-exist with the whales and the lions and the eagles and all that underlie them–if we are mentally prepared, which I believe we are.

Human culture is poised to realize technology’s potential to liberate the environment, Ausubel suggests: we need simply to pursue our drive toward efficiency and greater convenience. This drive might just allow us to have our cake and eat it, too – a prosperous and growing human society amid a thriving natural environment.

To hear more about Jesse Ausubel’s vision of a prosperous human population co-existing peacefully with a thriving natural world, please join us on Tuesday, January 13 at the SFJAZZ Center.

 

Scotty Strachan: The Great Basin in the Anthropocene @ The Interval January 6 — The Mountains Keep Teaching

Posted on Sunday, January 4th, 02015 by Mikl Em
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Events, Long Now salon (Interval), Long Term Science, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

Scotty Strachan up and upPhoto by Scotty Strachan

January 6, 02015: Scotty Strachan (University Nevada-Reno)
Long Now’s Nevada: the Great Basin in the Anthropocene
Tickets are still available

This Tuesday a very special event begins our 02015 series of salon talks at The Interval in San Francisco. The Great Basin in the Anthropocene on January 6 will be a night full of science, natural beauty, and Long Now lore.

Scotty Strachan will talk about the natural history of the Great Basin Region. Scotty’s scientific research includes study of the climate and hydrology of the area as well as tree-ring analysis of bristlecone pines. This work has been conducted throughout the region including on Long Now’s property on Mount Washington in Nevada. Alexander Rose, Long Now’s Executive Director, will give a special introduction about Long Now’s history and connection with the area. You can purchase tickets here while they last.

In Stewart Brand’s 02004 TED talk (full video below), he tells some of the story of Long Now’s Mount Washington. It’s a talk Stewart called “How Mountains Teach”.

In 02004 we were considering the mountain as the initial site for the 10,000 Year Clock. And while we are currently building in Texas, we remain committed to this fascinating, important area. Long Now’s property features the largest group of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones are amongst the oldest living things on the planet and are a symbol of The Long Now.

As Stewart says in the talk:

If you go up on top of those cliffs, that’s some of the Long Now land in those trees. And if you go up there and look back, then you’ll get a sense of what the view starts to be like from the top of the mountain. That’s the long view. That’s 80 miles to the horizon. And that’s also timberline and those bristlecones really are shrubs. That’s a different place to be. It’s 11,400 feet and it’s exquisite.

This talk is a great introduction not only to Mt. Washington, but also to the entire Great Basin region. Alexander’s introduction before Scotty’s talk will revisit the story of Long Now’s purchase of the land, and talk about why it means so much to our organization.

Scotty is also a talented photographer. While conducting field research in the mountains and valleys of eastern Nevada, he also takes the time to document the natural beauty of the area. We are thrilled to share dozens of Scotty’s photographs not only during his talk but on video screens at The Interval leading up to and following his talk. Below are just a few examples of Scotty’s work. Tickets and more information about the talk are here.

Mt Washington bristlecone -- Scotty Strachan at The Interval Scotty Strachan at The Interval Mt Washington Great Basin
Great Basin horses - Scotty Strachan
Great Basin golden sky - Scotty Strachan Great Basin red sky - Scotty Strachan
Scotty Strachan long walk Nevada
All photos by Scotty Strachan

Salt Crystals and Selfies: Curiosity after the Seven Minutes of Terror

Posted on Monday, December 22nd, 02014 by Ahmed Kabil
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http://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/11/25/mars/f17d9ebc88054dedce2d80e913fc89476d52495c/images/170-mount.jpg

In October 02013, NASA engineer Adam Steltzner spoke to the Long Now about landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. A decade of exhausted alternatives led Seltzner’s team to take the unconventional approach of a mini-rocket “sky crane” controlled by artificial intelligence to guide the rover to the Martian surface. Because the crane could not be tested on Earth, NASA would have to brave a $2.5 billion attempt on Mars to know it was successful. A 4×12 mile landing target at the Gale Crater left virtually no margin for error. It was a tense moment for martian space travel, which historically has a 42% mission success rate.

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It also made for compelling entertainment. Curiosity’s successful landing in August 02012 was a global event witnessed by millions, aided no doubt by a NASA social media campaign that included Curiosity video games, humorous tweets delivered in first-person by the rover, and “seven minutes of terror” ads that framed the descent as a high-stakes action film unfolding live before viewers’ eyes.

Guess who just got an “attitude adjustment”? My mood’s fine; I needed to reposition my medium-gain antenna for Earth communication

— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) July 19, 2012

A tweet from @MarsCuriosity ahead of landing on Mars.

28 Months on Mars, a new visual storytelling project from the New York Times, provides a window into what Curiosity has been up to since the dramatic landing. An HTML5 multimedia timeline weaves together patchwork snapshots taken by the rover with three-dimensional renderings of the martian landscape, immersing viewers in the bumpy twists and turns of Curiosity’s journey through the dried lakebed of the Gale Crater as it seeks to answer whether Mars could ever have supported life.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/11/25/mars/f17d9ebc88054dedce2d80e913fc89476d52495c/images/809-mojave.jpg

Wheels show gashed wear and tear after five miles on the unforgiving Gale Crater terrain. An unexpected week-long hiatus occurs when Curiosity has to troubleshoot a software update downloaded from Earth. Drilling samples at the Mojave rock outcrop reveal rice-shaped salt crystals (picture above) that suggest a past cycle of wet and dry conditions necessary for supporting microbial life. And at each noteworthy moment, Curiosity takes a selfie.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/11/25/mars/f17d9ebc88054dedce2d80e913fc89476d52495c/images/84-rocknest.jpg

The project is part of a growing trend in space exploration to use social media and short-form visual storytelling to engage the public and make the challenges and rewards of decades-long space missions more accessible.

Other recent efforts show the potential of short-form media to bring out the long-term narrative of extended scientific endeavors in space: NASA’s Global Selfie campaign for Earth Day 02014 resulted in over 50,000 submissions from 113 countries, and Astronomy Pic of the Day, a NASA project that shares daily photographs of the cosmos, has upwards of a million followers on Twitter. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a pop culture phenomenon through his social media dispatches from the International Space Station; and the European Space Agency has said November 02014’s Rosetta Comet landing (whose hashtag, #cometlanding, was trending globally for days) marked a “watershed” in the agency’s efforts to connect with the public.

Experience 28 Months on Mars here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/09/science/space/curiosity-rover-28-months-on-mars.html?_r=1

Long Now’s Nevada and Artists with Lasers: January 02015 at The Interval

Posted on Thursday, December 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
link   Categories: Announcements, Events, Long Now salon (Interval), Long Term Art, Long Term Science, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval - January 6, 02015

We have just announced our lineup of upcoming events at The Interval for 02015. The first four months of the year will feature talks on art, science, history, technology and long-term thinking. Tickets are on sale now for the first two:

January 6, 02015
Scotty Strachan: The Great Basin in the Anthropocene
environmental researcher at University Nevada-Reno
Scotty will talk about his scientific research in the Great Basin region including the Long Now owned site on Mount Washington in Nevada

January 20, 02015
Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers
artist, technology consultant (formerly of Jeff Koons studio)
first in a series on art, time, and technology talks produced with ZERO1

Space is limited at these events and tickets will sell out. So get yours early. If you make a tax-deductible donation to The Interval you’ll be added to our list for early notice about Interval event tickets. More information on these events below.

When we opened The Interval in June 02014 one of our goals was to host great events in our cafe/bar/museum space at Fort Mason in San Francisco. It was important that these talks complement our larger format Seminars About Long-term Thinking series which we produce for audiences of several hundred in San Francisco each month and are enjoyed around the world via podcast.

So The Interval’s “salon talk” series events are more frequent (2 or 3 times a month) and intimate: fewer than 100 people attend and have the chance to meet and converse with our speaker afterward. So far we’ve produced 14 events in this series and all of them have sold out. They are being recorded and will eventually become a podcast of their own. But we don’t yet have a timeline for that, so your best bet is to attend in person.

Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval on January 6, 02015
Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval - January 6, 02015

Tuesday January 6, 02015:
Scotty Strachan: Long Now’s Nevada: the Great Basin in the Anthropocene

Our first Interval salon talk of 02015 features geographer Scotty Strachan discussing the Great Basin region of eastern Nevada. Amonst his other work Scotty conducts research on Long Now’s Mount Washington property. Scotty has done extensive work with bristlecone pine trees which are amongst the oldest organisms on the planet often living for several thousand years. He will discuss his work in eastern Nevada and put it in perspective with climate science efforts worldwide.

Mathieu Victor speaks at The Interval on January 20, 02015
Mathieu Victor speaks at The Interval - January 20, 02015

Tuesday January 20, 02015:
Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers. Art, Tech, & Craft in the 21st Century

A creator, art historian and technologist, Mathieu Victor has worked for artists, galleries, and leading design studios. Mathieu’s study of past practice matched with his experience in executing extraordinary contemporary projects give him a unique perspective on how art in the physical world benefits from the digital age.

Other highlights of the 02015 salon talk schedule that we’ve announced: The Interval’s architect/design team Because We Can and Jason Scott of the Internet Archive will speak in February; and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes will talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War in March. More talks will be announced soon. We hope you’ll join us at The Interval soon.

Kevin Kelly: Long-term Trends in the Scientific Method — Seminar Flashback

Posted on Thursday, November 20th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In March 02006 author and Long Now board member Kevin Kelly shared his thoughts on what awaits us in the next century of science. At the time Kevin was already at work on the book What Technology Wants which would be published 5 years later. If you enjoyed Kevin’s 02014 Seminar for Long Now “Technium Unbound“, then you’ll appreciate this talk as a precursor to his ideas about technology as a super-organism.

Long Now members can watch this video here. The audio is free for everyone on the Seminar page and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

Science, says Kevin Kelly, is the process of changing how we know things. It is the foundation our culture and society. While civilizations come and go, science grows steadily onward. It does this by watching itself. [...]

A particularly fruitful way to look at the history of science is to study how science itself has changed over time, with an eye to what that trajectory might suggest about the future.

Kevin Kelly is a former editor of the Whole Earth Review and Whole Earth Catalog. He was the founding Executive Editor at Wired magazine, and his other books include Out of Control and most recently Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities (02013).

Kevin Kellly photo by Christopher Michel

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the 12 most recent Long Now Seminars. Long Now members can watch video of this Seminar video or more than ten years of previous Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Mark Lynas: 9 Planetary Boundaries, Finessing the Anthropocene — Seminar Flashback

Posted on Friday, October 17th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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“The Holocene is over and welcome to the Anthropocene our very uniquely human geological era.” In March 02012 environmental activist and author Mark Lynas gave a sobering assessment of Earth in the Anthropocene.

Lynas offers a framework for tracking the health of our planet, outlining nine measurable “boundaries” that if crossed threaten the well-being of humans on Earth. And some already had been crossed in 02012. These systems go beyond climate and biodiversity to measures like ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosols, and excess nitrogen in agriculture.

Long Now members can watch this video here. The audio is free for everyone on the Seminar page and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

We’ve raised the temperature of the Earth system, reduced the alkalinity of the oceans, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, changed the reflectivity of the planet, hugely affected the distribution of freshwater, and killed off many of the species that share the planet with us. [...] Some of those global alterations made by humans may be approaching tipping points—thresholds—that could destabilize the whole Earth system.

Mark Lynas‘ books include Six Degrees (which Stewart Brand called one of the finest books written on climate), The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, and most recently Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power (02014). He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Decarbonising Energy, which focuses on sustainable energy to mitigate climate change.

Mark Lynas: Nine Planetary Boundaries, Finessing the Anthropocene

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the 12 most recent Long Now Seminars. Long Now members can watch this video in full-—you must be logged in to the site—and the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

What Nuclear Waste Management Can Teach Us About Deep Time

Posted on Saturday, October 4th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments

courtesy of Vincent Ialenti

Many suggest we have entered the Anthropocene – a new geologic epoch ushered in by humanity’s own transformations of Earth’s climate, erosion patterns, extinctions, atmosphere and rock record. In such circumstances, we are challenged to adopt new ways of living, thinking and understanding our relationships with our planetary environment. To do so, anthropologist Richard Irvine has argued, we must first “be open to deep time.” We must, as Stewart Brand has urged, inhabit a longer “now.”

So I wonder: could it be that nuclear waste repository projects – long approached by environmentalists and critical intellectuals with skepticism – are developing among the best tools for re-thinking humanity’s place within the deeper history of our environment? Could opening ourselves … to deep, geologic, planetary timescales inspire positive change in our ways of living on a damaged planet?

Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti conducted two years of fieldwork among a Finnish team of experts in the process of developing a long-term geological repository for high-level nuclear waste. In a triptych of posts on NPR’s 13.7 blog, he reflects on the state of mind that is prompted when you begin asking the kinds of questions that nuclear waste experts confront in their work.

Describing the way an awareness of deep time scales began to seep into his own thinking as he immersed himself in the world these nuclear waste experts inhabit, Ialenti suggests that this kind of ‘attunement’ to long-term geologic processes may broaden and deepen our experience of our world.

In fact, Ialenti writes, this consideration of the long term is crucial in this Anthropocene age. In light of the irreversible impact we humans make and have made on our planet, we must begin to think about how that impact will reverberate throughout the millennia to come. This does not entail turning a blind eye to the concerns of the present moment, Ialenti cautions. But

What it does mean, though, is that we must have the backbone to look these enormous spans of time in the eye. We must have the courage to accept our responsibility as our planet’s – and our descendants’ – caretakers, millennium in and millennium out, without cowering before the magnitude of our challenge.

For more, you can read Ialenti’s three recent pieces on “deep time” on NPR’s 13.7 blog. Or visit his page on academia.edu.

Peter Schwartz: The Starships ARE Coming — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Friday, September 12th, 02014 by Mikl Em
link   Categories: Futures, Long Term Science, Seminars   chat 0 Comments

In September 02013 futurist Peter Schwartz spoke for Long Now about realistic scenarios for human interstellar travel. Peter, a founding Long Now Board member, participated in “The 100-year Starship” project and contributed to the book Starship Century (Edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford) with scientists and science fiction authors positing realistic ways humanity could voyage beyond our Solar System.

Our September Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) ”flashbacks” highlight Space-themed talks, as we lead up to Ariel Waldman’s The Future of Human Space Flight at The Interval, September 30th, 02014.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Starships ARE Coming is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until September 02014. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much longer than a human lifetime. Schwartz suggested four options.

  1. Generational ships: whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only their descendants will complete.
  2. Sleep ships: like in the movie “Avatar,” travelers go into hibernation
  3. Relativistic ships: at near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth.
  4. Download ships: “Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness into some machine-like device.

Peter Schwartz is a futurist, scenario planning  expert, and author of The Art of the Long View. Currently he serves as Senior Vice President for Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning at Salesforce.com. In 01988 Peter co-founded Global Business Network and served as their chairman until 02011. He is a co-founding Board Member of The Long Now Foundation and has spoken in our SALT series on four occasions.

Peter Schwartz

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Drew Endy Seminar Primer

Posted on Wednesday, September 3rd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Seminars   chat 0 Comments

On Tuesday, September 16th, Drew Endy presents “The iGEM Revolution“ as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Each month, our Seminar Primer gives you some background about the speaker, including links to explore even more.

adventures-in2
From Adventures in Synthetic Biology, by Drew Endy

Biotechnology is a young science, but it’s already proven its (potential) benefit to civilization. We can now engineer bacteria to manufacture life-saving drugs, we have new ways to diagnose disease, and we know how to modify the genome of plants so they become resistant to certain pests. Yet so far, says Stanford synthetic biologist Drew Endy, biotech has only realized a few of the grand promises it made in the 01970s, after scientists first succeeded in the synthesis of recombinant DNA. How can we realize these promises? How can we make biology easier to engineer? Endy’s answer to these questions is the growing field of synthetic biology, and an open-source, collaborative approach to the development of new bio-engineering tools.

Synthetic biology is built on the technologies of genetic engineering that were developed during the 20th century, but takes them a few steps further. Genetic engineers can isolate blocks of a cell’s genetic material, extract it from its nucleus, and splice it into another cell’s DNA to create a recombinant genome. Synthetic biologists, on the other hand, splice in pieces of DNA that they’ve built from scratch. It’s like the difference between composing an essay by cutting and pasting word sequences from existing texts, or doing so by putting individual letters in sequence in order to create words of your own.

The Human Genome Project gave us the ability to read nature’s instructional manual – DNA – like words in a book. But the real opportunities, scientists say, lie in our ability to not only read genetic code, but to write it, then build it using off-the-shelf chemical ingredients, strung together like holiday lights. It is the creation of new genomes – and a new frontier in bioengineering. (San Jose Mercury News)

Drew Endy was trained as an engineer, but found his way to biology when a senior-year college class made him realize that living matter holds great potential as building material. “I like to build stuff, and biology is the best technology we have for making stuff – trees, people, computing devices, food, chemicals, you name it,” Endy explains in an Edge conversation. He went on to obtain a graduate degree in biochemical engineering. But in his postdoctoral research, Endy began to grow frustrated with the existing cut-and-paste methods of DNA engineering. It’s an inexact science that often produces unexpected side effects: evolution has turned DNA into a complex library of information, and simply splicing in a new gene may not always lead the host cell to express it in the way you had expected. As a feature in The Economist explains,

No intelligent designer would have put the genomes of living organisms together in the way that evolution has. Some parts overlap, meaning that they cannot change jobs independently of one another. Others have lost their function but have not been removed, so they simply clutter things up. And there is no sense of organization or hierarchy. That is because, unlike an engineer, evolution cannot go back to the drawing board, it can merely play with what already exists. Biologists, who seek merely to understand how life works, accept this. Engineers such as Endy, who wish to change the way it works, do not. They want to start again.

Image by Peter and Maria Hoey

The only way to fully control – and understand – what a cell does, Endy realized, is to build its DNA from scratch. We should think of cells a bit more like we think of computers: as hardware that can be fully programmed – by DNA, the perfect software language. In an interview for the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy proposes,

Let’s look at biology not as a science, but as a technology platform … Biology is the most compelling technology platform anybody has ever seen. It’s the stuff of life and it’s a reproducing machine! It’s a nanotechnology that actually works. You can program it with DNA – sort of. We’re learning how to do that. It’s the most overwhelmingly cool, impressive technology platform any engineer is ever going to encounter if they’re alive today.

Endy’s mission is to help the world learn this new technology – to make biology easier (and thereby faster, more accessible, and finally more productive) to engineer. And in order to do that, Endy identifies two crucial tools.

The first is standardization: rather than having to build pieces of DNA from scratch every time they want to create a new gene, synthetic biologists should be able to pick and choose ‘parts’ from a standard, universal toolkit of genetic material. Forbes explains:

The Industrial Revolution got a serious boost in 1864 when a machinist standardized screws. Henceforth someone trying to build an engine could pluck a standard 8-gauge, 32-threads-per-inch machine screw off the shelf. Endy aims for similar standardization in the new field of synthetic biology, and embraces the radical approach of creating a free registry of building blocks. In 2002 MIT professors started a not-for-profit called BioBricks that has collected 2,000 biological components, including gene sequences that sense light, produce light, send messages between cells and switch cell functions on and off.

We can think of BioBricks as the biological equivalent of Legos: they’re pieces of genetic material with universal connectors on each end, so they can be combined with any other piece to create novel strings of DNA. BioBricks make DNA easier to engineer because they create a certain level of abstraction. Rather than having to put the individual As, Cs, T’s and G’s of DNA together when building a synthetic gene, engineers can use BioBricks as a kind of genetic shorthand – just as software programmers make use of languages like Java to spare them the work of writing out their code in bits (Stanford Alumni Magazine). Endy imagines that these BioBricks will be manufactured in so-called BioFabs (International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology) – a “biological design-build facility.” In fact, he helped launch the first one in Emeryville, in 02009.


Image from the European Molecular Biology Organization

The idea of facilities dedicated entirely to building BioBricks suggests that standardization also leads to a productive division of labor. In his interview with the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy explains, “Separation of design and fabrication can allow people to specialize, becoming experts in each area … We’ve seen this with microprocessors. Someone designs the chip and somebody else builds it.” It’s led to more sophisticated processors – by allowing people to specialize, greater complexity can be developed.

The second crucial tool involves making those standard parts publicly available and encouraging everyone – engineers and students alike – to get creative, share their findings, and help one another learn. The BioBricks Foundation, of which Endy is president and co-founder, works on the premise that “… fundamental scientific knowledge belongs to all of us and must be freely available for ethical, open innovation.” In his Edge conversation, Endy adds,

Biotechnology today derives investments from business models that support the exclusive application of different biological functions for a very small number of problems. For example, there are wonderful companies that have locked up most of the relevant intellectual property around how to engineer proteins to bind DNA. The products that they can deliver are going to be measured in small positive integer numbers, a few diseases. But, the real value associated with being able to engineer proteins that bind DNA are in the uncountable applications people could use the proteins for. It’s like a programming language where it would be a big downstream economic cost if you owned “if/then” and you were the only person who could use it.

Endy considers education a crucial component for fostering this open-source collaboration and innovation. He tries to get high schoolers and college students excited about synthetic biology in several ways – by writing comics about it, for example (and you’ll see several images from his Adventures in Synthetic Biology included in this post).

But Endy’s interest in education is truly epitomized by iGEM – the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. It began as an undergraduate course that Endy developed while teaching at MIT, and has since evolved into a large annual event that draws thousands of participants from all over the world. Competing teams use BioBricks – which they get from and contribute back to the BioBricks Foundation’s Standard Registry of Parts – to engineer synthetic organisms that perform particular functions. The competition not only gets undergraduates excited about the field of bioengineering; its promotion of creative collaboration also spurs innovation and advances new technologies.

Of course, the widespread accessibility of new DNA-building tools isn’t entirely risk-free. Critics worry about what kinds of dangerous new things might be built if those standard parts fall into the wrong hands. Endy understands that advances in synthetic biology involve important questions about what new technologies might produce, who will control them, what cultural and ethical implications they’ll hold, and what safety issues may arise. He advocates discussion about these issues: in 02008, The Long Now Foundation hosted a debate between Endy and Jim Thomas, Research Programme Manager at the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC), and an outspoken critic of synthetic biology.

Though he sees the value of open discussion about the ethics of bioengineering, Endy hopes we do keep thinking about how synthetic biology might benefit society – and how engineering tools can be leveraged to produce that benefit in an accessible and easy, but also responsible and ethical way. Endy will talk about the promise of synthetic biology, his work with iGEM, and more on Tuesday, September 16 at SFJAZZ Center.