[ExI] DIYbio on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer (PBS)
kanzure at gmail.com
Wed Dec 31 22:59:02 UTC 2008
I just uploaded this clip from last night's newscast-
It goes over do-it-yourself amateur genetic engineering, iGEM,
synthetic biology, etc.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, solving biological problems by engineering living
cells. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has this Science Unit report
on the emerging field of synthetic biology.
TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour correspondent: More than 800 college kids from
all over the world celebrating the end of months of intense work
building biological machines. These were the final moments of the 2008
International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, or IGEM, on
the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
These young people spent their summer on their home campuses doing
something called synthetic biology, a new way to approach solving the
world's problems using living organisms. The annual IGEM jamboree
gives them the chance to show off all that work through a series of
The team from Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, invented Dr. Coli.
STUDENT: This is a self-regulating drug delivery system. It senses
inflammation factors on a certain place in the body of the patient,
and it reacts by producing the appropriate amount of drugs on that
place. When the patient isn't ill anymore, Dr. Coli will eliminate
himself out of the body.
TOM BEARDEN: The Duke team focused on building bacteria to attack
plastic waste in landfills to make it biodegradable.
Mississippi State worked on breaking down the tough cell walls of
woody plants so they can be converted into biofuel.
And Rice University invented "bio-beer." Their goal was to engineer a
yeast that would produce resveratrol during the brewing process.
Resveratrol is the substance found in red wine that's been shown to
greatly extend life in simple organisms.
'A discovery science'
TOM BEARDEN: At times, a layman who wandered into a presentation might
have wondered what language they were speaking.
SPEAKER: This is the Tal gene, under the expression, under the
regulation by the ADH1 promoter.
TOM BEARDEN: And with teams from 21 countries here, there were
certainly a lot of languages other than English being spoken in the
hallways. But everybody seemed to understand the common language of
synthetic biology, even if jetlag occasionally took some people out of
Synthetic biology is something of a departure from traditional
biology. The basic concept is to build a biological machine, modify an
existing organism, using standard parts, much like an engineer might
design and build a computer using off-the-shelf microchips and circuit
Randy Rettberg is a professor at MIT and IGEM director.
RANDY RETTBERG, IGEM director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
Biology like you learned in high school is a discovery science. You're
trying to find how the world works and then do something interesting
based on that knowledge that you've achieve. Synthetic biology is more
of an engineering activity. It's really building new things that
didn't exist before.
TOM BEARDEN: Rettberg and others have established a parts bin, or a
library of biological parts at MIT. Some of it is housed in a freezer
in Rettberg's lab. They call these bits of DNA and other materials
STUDENT: So we're dealing with bacteria, right, so we've got lots of
DNA floating around.
'Students are the best teachers'
TOM BEARDEN: Like all of the teams that participated in IGEM this
year, the team from Brown University got its biobricks delivered by
mail in the form of a loose-leaf binder. The bricks were dried on
They punched out tiny circles of paper containing the parts they
thought would do the work they wanted them to accomplish, multiplied
them, and then implanted them inside bacteria. Professor Gary Wessel
is the team's faculty sponsor.
Do they come up with ideas that surprise you?
GARY WESSEL, faculty sponsor, Brown University IGEM Team: All the
time. Tom, this is I think one of the joys of the job. I am constantly
learning in this profession, and the students are the best teachers
TOM BEARDEN: The idea the team came up with this year was to create a
cheap way of detecting the presence of toxic material in water,
something that could be enormously valuable in countries that can't
afford major laboratory facilities.
Harvard Professor Pamela Silver thinks synthetic biology has
PAMELA SILVER, professor, Harvard Medical School: The green bottle has
photosynthetic bacteria in it. And our hope is to use these bacteria
-- they can harvest sunlight and live on sunlight -- and use them to
produce biofuels, for example, hydrogen or biodiesel.
I think there are people saying, "This is the future of technology in
biology." And so that makes it just as exciting. We're not all going
to go out and be professors and academics. Instead, can I go out and
save the world, for example? So there is this sense of, "I can change
TOM BEARDEN: Well, if you can make fuel out of sunlight, that would
change the world.
PAMELA SILVER: We're going to do it, man. This is -- you're going to
have this growing on your roof.
TOM BEARDEN: Mac Cowell, one of the original organizers of IGEM, have
the honor of announcing the finalists culled from the day-long round
Cowell is something of an evangelist for synthetic biology. He wants
to democratize the field, essentially create a corps of amateur
bioengineers who could contribute without investing years of their
lives in graduate degrees. He points to people who build computers in
their garages as a model for what he has in mind.
To further that idea, Cowell and Jason Bobe co-founded an organization
called DIYbio, or Do-It-Yourself Biology. They held the group's first
organizational meeting in this pub earlier this year.
MACKENZIE COWELL, co-founder, DIYbio: We sent out this e-mail saying,
"Hey, community, we're really interested in do-it-yourself biology.
We're not sure what that means yet. Here are some ideas about what
that could mean. Let's get together and figure it out."
And so we e-mailed that out to very few mailing lists, just a couple.
And we met here at 7 o'clock like four months ago and -- five months
ago -- and some really cool people showed up, including some real
academics, like heavy hitters from Harvard and MIT. So it was cool to
see them in the room with, like, computer scientists, with, like, high
TOM BEARDEN: DIYbio had another meeting at MIT recently, where Cowell
and Bobe broached the idea of building public laboratories, where
enthusiasts could conduct experiments.
MACKENZIE COWELL: We sort of came up with the main idea. We should be
safe, open, responsible. We should...
Concerns over regulation
TOM BEARDEN: Even though there are regulations that make it difficult
to procure certain types of biological material, some find opening the
field to amateurs worrisome.
Roger Brent, the director of the Molecular Sciences Institute at the
University of California at San Francisco, thinks some sort of
oversight is necessary for do-it-yourself biology.
ROGER BRENT, director, Molecular Sciences Institute: Reluctantly, no,
I don't trust them to regulate themselves. I don't see it as plausible
that a person, perhaps even a teenager, would be allowed to build and
release an animal virus that could be transmitted to human to human.
The kind of regulation I'm talking about can only happen at a national
level, and it only makes sense if it's done in concert with harmonized
regulations in other countries. This is exactly the model of driver's
licenses, pilot's licenses, radio operator's licenses.
TOM BEARDEN: Jason Bobe also thinks there should be safety rules, but
not necessarily government regulations.
JASON BOBE, co-founder, DIYbio: By having an organization who wants to
promote on the one hand innovation and education and learning, it's
also a great opportunity for us to help be innovators in regulatory
policy and safety, too.
TOM BEARDEN: Back at the IGEM awards ceremony, the Brown team's hard
work paid off with a major award.
PRESENTER: Our second area award for environment, best environment
application, was awarded to Brown University.
TOM BEARDEN: But when it came time to give the grand prize, a metallic
representation of a biobrick, pranksters had hidden it.
PRESENTER: The judges do not know where the brick is.
ATTENDEE: Under the table.
TOM BEARDEN: It was eventually given to the team from Slovenia for its
effort to create a synthetic vaccine against helicobacter pylori, a
bacteria that infects half the world with ulcers and other gastric
>From five teams in 2004, the competition grew to 84 this year.
Organizers expect it to be even bigger next year. So they're starting
a new research project: figuring out how to pay for moving up to a
major convention center.
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