Who's afraid of a woolly mammoth?
Plus, a bunch of biotech companies got a lot of money!
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Where were you ten years ago this month? Happy 10th anniversary to the Occupy Movement! I spent a lot of time recently wrapped in nostalgia for the time I spent camping and marching in the fall of 2011. It was the best and most exhilarating time of my life—and the most frustrating. But there’s no doubt that Occupy was successful in making income inequality a mainstream issue and inspiring a new generation of American activism. I’ve seen the seeds of social justice that were planted in those public parks pop up in unexpected places, and I have admired friends for whom Occupy was just the beginning of meaningful careers in organizing and public service.
Something I’m thinking a lot about today, as I write this edition of the newsletter, is my hope for the growing biotech companies I cover, and the many great thinkers who have advocated for the democratization of knowledge within them. This week’s newsletter is focused heavily on financial headlines, and some of these companies have their genesis in scrappy basements and community labs. I hope their leaders understand the moral obligation to keep science accessible and in the service of the public good.
Here’s the latest.
Should We De-Extinct Woolly Mammoths?
Geneticist George Church broke my corner of the internet again last week when it was announced that his company Colossal, co-led by serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm, raised $15 million for a very controversial de-extinction project targeting the woolly mammoth. This news was another wonderful example of media sensationalism, and hundreds of explosive headlines made it seem like Jurassic Park: Siberia! is imminent.
The thing is, that’s not accurate. It’s not a de-extinction project, it’s a hybridization project that could produce a cold-resistant Asian elephant. Can we say that the existence of one or two hybrid elephants is the same as resurrecting an extinct species? Plus, NatGeo reports that the technology itself is unproven in elephants. And even if it does work eventually, it will take decades for a full herd of hybrid elephants to develop, and even then, they still might not be woolly mammoths.
Sure, reintroducing endangered species to their native habitats in the steppe could have upsides in the fight against climate change. But should we be solving every human-made problem with more human technology? The project raises a lot of questions, including philosophical ones about whether for-profit companies should be pursuing “de-extinction” at all.
Additionally, some within the synthetic biology establishment are concerned that polarizing, flashy projects can have a negative impact on the less scary but absolutely critical smaller-scale biotech interventions in endangered habitats.
At the IUCN World Conservation Congress this month, advocates fought an uphill battle for the use of synthetic biology in conservation—limits on this research from conservative actors would be a massive blow against very important and necessary work that’s just emerging. I wouldn’t be surprised if tossing de-extinction of megafauna into the conservation debate with environmentalists, who are already leery, backfires spectacularly.
Designer Babies: Please Regulate Them
Bloomberg reports the birth of the first child born based on its polygenic risk score, a concept so ethically confusing, NEJM just released a special report on it and Antonio Regalado wrote a thread 23 tweets long. A polygenic risk score is a much more realistic prospect for “designing” children than genetic engineering, because it’s fairly inexpensive if you’re already shelling out for IVF, and the scores rank embryos based on the likelihood of the presence of certain characteristics and diseases. But it’s an imperfect calculation and widely misunderstood by the public, despite companies like Genomic Prediction already sprouting up into a super under-regulated space.
Author and genetics researcher Kathryn Paige Harden advocates for a societal shift in how we consider the use of polygenic risk scores. In a recent interview about her new book, “The Genetic Lottery,” Harden suggests that polygenic scores could be just as important as being “nurtured” by a wealthy family when it comes to understanding education outcomes.
Can we please have some laws?
Opentrons, an open source lab robot startup with its roots in DIYbio, gets $200 million
Read the press release.
Ginkgo Bioworks Goes Public at $1.63 Billion
The next big headline of the past week was the launch of $DNA. The Boston-based company is building a cell engineering platform for other companies to grow stuff. It’s been described as “AWS but for biology.” The NYT profile of the synbio giant, which takes a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the Jurassic Park meme, has a lot of great nuggets in it—including that Ginkgo got its start with federal grants.
“Ginkgo wouldn’t exist today without translational research capital from the government,” CEO Jason Kelly said. He has previously discussed dumpster diving most of their early lab equipment. Increase funding for translational science! Recycle equipment! ✊
My favorite Ginkgo project is still “Resurrecting the Sublime,” a bioart installation that asked, “Could we ever again smell flowers driven to extinction by humans?” (Note that they weren’t actually de-extincting the flowers.) Another close contender for coolness is a simple K-12 testing kit designed by Ginkgo spinoff Concentric, which was recently featured on Fast Company’s list of the best design solutions for Covid 19.
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The most boring thing I read online are articles that freak out about biohackers working with synthetic biology at home. These articles, which show up with stunning regularity, are lazy attempts at clickbait at best and bad faith scaremongering at worst. This week’s culprit, the Financial Times, actually uses the word “bioterror” in the headline on a piece that contains a lot of half-truths and doesn’t mention that the community of independent biologists is a global, collaborative movement that has a very long track record of biosafety advocacy. Luckily, #CommunityBio Twitter set the record straight. Let’s keep calling out this sloppy journalism—the fight against misinformation is everyone’s responsibility.
Biohackers made a cheap Covid test, but no one can use it. Leaps Magazine
What should public health infrastructure look like? The Boston Globe
Biohacker Josiah Zayner on being deplatformed. Pirate Wires
Big Data in the deep blue sea. Nautilus
Call for Abstracts! Citizen Science: Theory & Practice Special Collection on Biomedical Citizen Science. More @ OutLawBio
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