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Synthetic Biology Technology

Outdesigning evolution, resurrecting species, and reengineering our world – an insight into the Synthetic Age.

“Like the injured animal we find suffering by the side of the road, the broken planet has suddenly become our responsibility. We no longer have the option of turning away and pretending we do not notice …”

Eating a quick lunch ahead of my call in late 2019 to Christopher J. Preston, an academic focussed on the ethics of emerging technologies, British news websites were dominated by that morning’s actions of environmental activists Extinction Rebellion. Amid a wave of protest across the British capital, they targeted London’s public transport network, and at Canning Town station commuters dragged protesters from the roof of a train before setting upon them. Eight XR activists were arrested during the disruption, joining a total of 1,700+ arrested across a fortnight of demonstrations and disruptions. It dominated the national news cycle and public discussion for days after, and no general consensus was found on their actions.

Extinction Rebellion offers a very real example of the complex challenges involved in responding to climate change. The news gave a particular resonance to my discussion with Preston, Professor of Philosophy and a Research Fellow in the Mansfield Center’s Program on Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana and author of a number of books, most recently, The Synthetic Age. Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World (MIT Press 2018).

It’s a fascinating, lively and thought provoking read, and whether you are a pessimist or an optimist, an expert or someone just wanting a peep around the corner of our future, there’s something for everyone in there. Speaking exclusively on the telephone from his home in Missoula, Montana, to our editor Luke Upton, Preston outlined his thinking in the book. The coming age will be not be as much about the impact humans have had on the earth in the past, but about what the impact of their newly enabled ability to shape its future will be. His topics go beyond just climate change, and its familiar co-conspirators, species extinction, and toxic pollution and into the complex worlds of nanotechnology, synthetic biology, de-extinction, and climate engineering.

In a powerful opening, he lays out where he sees us right now; “After we fully awaken to the global nature of the damages we have inflicted, we have no option but to make our decisions about future actions more self-aware. Like the injured animal we find suffering by the side of the road, the broken planet has suddenly become our responsibility. We no longer have the option of turning away and pretending we do not notice … To make matters worse, the responsibility is now particularly acute. At the very time we must assume this moral burden, new technologies are making possible an even deeper transformation of the surrounding world than anything that has gone before.”

For Preston ( @SyntheticAge ) , talk of us moving into a new geological epoch, ‘the Anthropocene’ – named as such due to humanity’s dominant influence on climate and the environment is not accurate. Instead, he favours, “the Plastocene” or “Synthetic Age”, not as a nod to the plastics crisis as some may think, but instead to reflect how the world is now increasingly malleable in human hands as we develop technologies to take over some of Mother Nature’s most basic operations.

In a world of bombastic politics, overwhelming social media and rolling news coverage, where does an expert on ethics like Christopher fit in? Whilst he laughs at the term – he’s not just an academic, his opening chapter throws a light on a spell as a commercial fisherman – he pauses before telling me; “Well, I come at things from an ethical not technical background, so I’m not predicting the exact character of the future. My general approach is to take things on a case by case basis. There’s a lot of hype when it comes to new technologies, people jump on a particularly speculative aspect and run with it. So you have to cut through all that. A proposed technology has to be philosophically and ethically desirable. If we take synthetic biology as an example, the future of nature should not be defined simply by what is possible. For me, can has never automatically entailed should. The technology is going to have an influence on everyone, so we need a wide ranging and inclusive debate on what a Synthetic Age really means. With such huge developments available, we need the future to be as far as possible, a matter of deliberation and democratic choice.”

Aside from synthetic biology, Prestons’ book outlines a wide range of technologies that might permanently reconfigure the Earth: nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter; “molecular manufacturing” that offers unlimited re-purposing; “gene drives” that can out-design evolution in the wild; the relocation and resurrection of long lost species; and climate change fighters from stratospheric aerosols to artificial trees.

Returning extinct species is always an eye-catching issue, and Preston draws upon a haunting image of a de-extincted Neanderthal baby being born, 40,000 years distant from its nearest ancestors. But it’s the woolly mammoth, that gets the most attention in his area. The woolly mammoth genome is already mapped. Geneticist George Church at Harvard has replaced genes in Asian elephant tissue cultures growing in petri dishes with mammoth like updates. The lessons learned might one day allow an Asian elephant genome to be progressively edited into a mammoth one.

I ask Preston what he thinks of this; “The woolly mammoth idea generates a lot of excitement. But the hype can be unhelpful. There are far more issues behind extinction than just the death of the last animal. There’s little point in bringing back the animal like a northern white rhino if their environment and the threats they face remain. What’s the best place to put our attention? Perhaps we should be focusing on the species that are currently endangered rather than putting energy into resurrecting those that have already gone extinct?”

As our time comes to an end, I bring up the work of Extinction Rebellion and ask Preston what his view of them is? “I am a teacher, and when you are in class you can easily get stuck in a discussion about the most appropriate ways to implement a moral conviction. The Extinction Rebellion – whatever you think of their tactics – are acting on a conviction about nature’s importance many people probably share. I know they have quite varied views, and transformative technologies like synthetic biology can rub people in the environmental movement in different ways. There are some who are against all technology. I obviously disagree with that. I think there are serious solutions to pressing challenges found within technology. But there are also places where behavioural changes are more appropriate than running headlong into a speculative and unrecognizable future.

And to conclude, I tell him that I’ve at times felt overwhelmed by some of the problems the world faces, and asks how he copes; “Well, some people think this book is too negative, others too positive! For my view on the world? I think we are in a bleak position, yes. But I still get excited about stuff, – the growth of electric transport, the shifting economics of renewable energy. There are signs of what you might call a “renewal of reality” taking place in artisanal economies and people’s re-commitment to community and locality. I got nourished by all of this. But I admit, it can be hard not to feel down. Yet, think about it. Even some of the hardest problems have solutions. Air travel sits within an evolving nexus that includes carbon offsets, high speed rail, synthetic (non-fossil) fuels, and evolving battery technologies for short-haul flights. Cultural expectations will also shift. Solutions are systemic and achievable if we are willing to pursue them vigorously enough.”

Preston’s book, whilst dealing with big issues, retains a lightness of touch, offering pop culture references alongside lively potted biographies of those driving change but it’s clear he is serious about what it means when we move from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it. He insists we should all have a say in the shape of this synthetic age. Only time will tell if this will happen.

Order your copy of the Synthetic Age book here and read more of Christopher Preston’s thoughts on his website.

Christopher was a lead speaker at Synbio Markets 2019 in Berlin, and this interview first appeared in Issue #16 of the Bio Market Insights Quarterly.

Interested in more stories and figures shaping the Synthetic Age? Then you may also like… 

Innovation focus: US Army synthetic biology project ‘may’ lead to new class of high-performance materials.

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Download: Bringing synthetic biology innovations to commercial scale.

Expert Interview: 5 Minutes With…Seiji Hirasaki from OriCiro Genomics.

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