As first books go, Dr. Adam Rutherford probably couldn’t have chosen a vaster topic: an investigation into both the origins of life itself, and the incredible potential of its man-made future. In Creation: How Science is Reinventing Itself, Rutherford offers a historical account of biology’s biggest breakthroughs, before introducing readers to what he perceives as the next one on that list: synthetic biology, loosely defined as the radical engineering of new or novel life forms.
Fortunately for readers, Rutherford is uniquely suited to write such a tome. A geneticist by training, Rutherford contributes regular science columns to The Guardian and recently ended an 11-year stint as an editor at Nature to host a new, weekly BBC show, Inside Science. We caught up with Rutherford, who resides in the UK, to talk about scientists playing God, the Supreme Court’s gene patent ruling… and his love affair with monochromatic clothing.
Your new book, Creation, explores synthetic biology — which you say could have a similar impact on society to the Industrial Revolution or the advent of the internet. Why is synthetic biology so important, and how do you see it transforming our lives?
The first thing to do is to describe what synthetic biology is, because definitions can differ. I’m hesitant to pin labels, but the primary aim of synthetic biology — and the easiest way to think about it — is the application of engineering techniques to biology, and the application of those techniques to real-world problems. Things like climate change, food production, fuel production, and even space travel.
"We’ll be living in a world where the tools to answer global issues will be biological ones."
Now, when the field of synthetic biology comes to fruition, we’ll be living in a world where the tools to answer global issues will be biological ones — rather than, or alongside, those wrought by industrial manufacturing, for example. One really concrete example comes from the field of medicine: Right now, the best malaria treatment is derived from a plant called artemesia annua, which is a slow-growing shrub, and one that of course needs to be farmed. So the cost is high and the supply is insecure. A team in San Francisco has already used synthetic biology to re-engineer yeast, to create the drug without relying on any natural plant at all. It’s expected to reduce costs of the drug tenfold and create stable supply.
Despite breakthroughs like that one, you’ve also noted that synthetic biology is a field where hype runs rampant. Let’s be clear: Where is the field right now, and where do you anticipate it’ll be in five years?
Hype is a really important point, and I try to be enthusiastic about synthetic biology and its potential, while also being moderate about where the field is today. In synthetic biology, right now, a lot of the circuits being developed just don’t work very well yet — there’s a lot of complexity, and still a lot of noise. Systems designed to work a certain way end up not working that way at all. And that’s not unlike any other field, say the design of an electronic circuit. You design a system to work a certain way and it doesn’t, and it can take a lot of time to figure out why and to figure out how to perfect it.
Furthermore, synthetic biology depends on extreme, extreme complexity. After all, it’s ultimately about controlling living systems, and evolution has shown that it’s pretty tough to do something like that. So what the entire field needs to do is unravel that noise, and create more control and more predictability. We can’t say when that’ll happen, because it’ll happen on a continuum — that’s just the nature of scientific progress.
Before the US Supreme Court ruled last week that natural genes can’t be patented, you noted in a column at The Guardian that some patents threaten to be "a hindrance to innovation." What’s your take on the ruling?
"There’s a certain absurdity in patenting bits of DNA that are not a process or a unique invention."
Science and technology tends to progress much faster than the law, and the law doesn’t necessarily do a great job of keeping up. The inadequacy of patent law, in this instance, meant that we had several decades of confusion and insufficient legal regulation where genetics are concerned. There’s a certain absurdity in patenting bits of DNA that are not a process or a unique invention of some sort.
This ruling is a genuinely good one, and I say that for two primary reasons. The first is that it allows researchers to investigate basic biological systems without worrying about financial repercussions or liability. Let’s say you have a researcher investigating some biochemical pathway, with dozens of genes involved, and as soon as they stumble across one that’s been patented, they need to stop? That’s a problem. And second, for genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2, Myriad was charging thousands of dollars for a single diagnostic test to check for breast cancer risk. So the prospect of opening up tests for those who can’t afford them right now is a huge benefit.
You’re also critical of those who warn that synthetic biology is tantamount to "playing God," and that it carries enormous risks. Why do you think they’ve got it wrong?
I come from a very "pro-science" point of view, and the idea that society will continue to grow and improve because of scientific innovation. Certainly, the innovations being created by synthetic biology are new, they’re novel, and I think they’re largely misunderstood by the general public and by political decision-makers. So before anyone comes to any opinion about synthetic biology, or makes a decision about how and when to regulate it, they need access to better information.
"The innovations being created by synthetic biology are new, they’re novel, and I think they’re largely misunderstood by the general public."
I worry, because there are historical instances where similar discussions haven’t happened in an informed way. Take genetically modified food, for instance: in the UK, a constructive conversation about the benefits and risks never really took off. It was hijacked by certain lobby groups before it could occur in a rational, democratic, mature way. [Ed: Genetically modified crops are banned in the UK]. Of course, there are fair critiques of synthetic biology, and they should be part of any future conversations, but I see the benefits greatly outweighing those criticisms.
On an unrelated note, I couldn’t help but notice a recent Guardian column you wrote in celebration of World Goth Day. You confessed to having been "drawn to the shadows of a gothic aesthetic" as a teen. Any lingering goth tendencies?
Oh, this is the best question. To be honest, I was always far too happy and cheerful to really succeed as a Goth during my teenage years. But I’m 38 years old now, and I admit that I’m currently wearing an entirely monochromatic outfit — even my hair is black with a little bit of white showing up in it. I’ve never understood the idea of colorful clothes, to be honest. I mean, why do it at all? Fortunately, I’ve managed to find the one store, All Saints, that caters to people my age with that inclination. Retired Goths, I guess you could call us?