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Why #meetsynbio ?

Why should you participate in #meetsynbio ? Maxx Chatsko makes the case for putting a personal face on synthetic biology.

At this year’s Synberc Spring Retreat, Synberc’s Center Director Dr. Jay Keasling (center) and several graduate students had some fun with the #meetsynbio campaign. Image Source. Kat Tarasova/Twitter.

You know what they say about first impressions.

Unfortunately, making positive first encounters with the general public has been problematic for the emerging field of synthetic biology. Something about research papers with highly technical names, the stereotypically-bad communication skills of scientists and engineers, and the emotionally-charged labels slapped onto the field and its work tends to disengage a non-specialist audience. Weird, huh?

The public perception of synthetic biology was an important topic of discussion at the Synberc Spring Retreat at UC Berkeley in early April -- and that’s a good thing. Synberc is a major U.S. research program that was created to make biology easier and safer to engineer by encouraging collaboration and educating researchers and policymakers on responsible practices. The organization also engages the public about the risks and benefits of deploying synthetic biology tools. After all, new genetic technologies have great potential to provide a combination of whole and partial solutions to societal issues ranging from climate change to skyrocketing health care expenses that remain completely or partially unaddressed by existing technologies. But that potential may only be realized if the benefits and risks are effectively communicated and discussed with the public.

In search of parallels, let’s consider electricity. Harnessing its power led to some fabulous early inventions, such as electric light and nifty toy train sets. The former replaced kerosene as the home’s light source of choice, in no small part because it was safer, more convenient, and more effective. We may take it for granted today, but think about the absurdity of it from an early adopter’s point of view.

If you were wealthy enough you could have someone come into your home, drill holes in the walls, and run copper wires from room to room. Somehow, when the installation process was finished, all you had to do was turn a knob and light was emitted from a funny glass bulb. It was invisible energy -- and it was a radical concept that few truly understood, yet, most could see the benefits.

Image source: Alex Liivet/Flickr.

Synthetic biology faces similar hurdles today (microbes work on a scale that might as well be considered invisible, too) and a complex web of new issues and opportunities. The field has to navigate public attitudes toward biotechnology, support efforts to add technological capabilities to a diverse collection of industries, and come to terms that a “must have” biology-derived consumer product is years away at best. (Tech giants have given consumers the iPhone and Netflix. Next-generation biotech is barely just beginning to offer direct consumer products.)  

As British economist Michael Lipton aptly framed a key component of the relationship between consumers and technology (electricity, no less):

“I always say that electricity is a fantastic invention, but if the first two products had been the electric chair and the cattle prod, I doubt most consumers would have seen the point.”

Of course, although it will help immensely, we shouldn’t wait for engineered biology to provide a product consumers can’t live without before we begin engaging the public (see: Monsanto and biotech crops). So, what steps can the field take to open a two-way dialogue with and build interest and enthusiasm among the general public?

In other words, how can we make engineering biology relevant to your parents? Cool to your teenage sibling? And viewed as a potential path to be taken to a sensible middle ground in many societal issues that have developed tangential hot-button debates?

There’s plenty of work left to do, but perhaps we can simplify it a little. One of the central issues facing the field’s public relations deficit is the gap between the research conducted and everyday people. So, rather than let stereotypes of awkward scientists and perceptions of corporate control of technology persist, we should begin taking the first steps to humanize the research, technology platforms, and startups building the field. After all, synthetic biology is as much about democratizing biotech as it about building DNA constructs.

For instance, CRISPR-Cas9 has the hallmarks of a game-changer, but you could forgive your accountant (or any non-specialist) for failing to see it’s relevance or importance. She probably wouldn’t have the need to become more informed about genome engineering on her own time, either. On the other hand, getting a few less-than-intimidating graduate students to discuss the benefits and risks of their research leveraging the power of CRISPR-Cas9 could make the subject considerably more approachable and engaging.

Good news: Humanizing synthetic biology is the next goal of Synberc, through its #meetsynbio campaign, which will take shape with live events and on social media. Over the next several months -- and leading up to the iGEM Jamboree in September -- master pipettors and DNA builders, artists and designers, and entrepreneurs and investors from around the world will be encouraged to share stories and photographs of their research and themselves. The individuals exploring the field are people, too, after all.

To learn more about #meetsynbio or to discover ways in which you can get involved check out the following at the official meetsynbio website:

  • Meet several synthetic biology enthusiasts, including myself, in the above video (sorry, Taylor Swift)
  • Participate in #meetsynbio
  • Read about #meetsynbio events
  • Meet some fabulous partners

Maxx Chatsko presented on effective communication of synthetic biology at the Synberc Spring Retreat. He writes about synthetic biology for individual investors at The Motley Fool, a financial multimedia company, and was the former Editor-in-Chief of SynBioBeta. He’s currently earning his Masters in Materials Science and Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and wields a Bachelor’s of Science in Bioprocess Engineering from SUNY-ESF. Follow him on Twitter to keep pace with developments in engineering biology.