Communicating with Congress

July 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

I was vaguely planning a post on the Bioethics Commission discussion on Synthetic Biology, but was frustrated by the fact that there aren’t any transcripts of the sessions yet.  Which means that the only way to find out if anything interesting happened is to listen to a whole day of talks.  Alas, I don’t have time for that — I’ll wait for the skimmable version to come out.  (Or perhaps someone else has already done the listening and could share some thoughts?  Looking at you, Silver lab).

But in looking for the Bioethics discussion I came across the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Hearing on Developments in Synthetic Genomics and Implications for Health and Energy, which happened last May (triggered by the Venter Institute’s publication of the construction of a synthetic genome, nicknamed “Synthia”).  If you have a few minutes to browse the transcript, it’s actually quite interesting to see the careful ballet between the politicians and the scientists, both of whom are always aware that the press is listening and will pounce on any slip of the tongue.   Nevertheless, some kind of communication manages to happen.  Here, for example, is the Chairman, Henry Waxman, making absolutely certain that everyone understands that the leap from “Synthia” to Frankenstein’s monster is not a small one:

“Dr. Venter, this is a remarkable advance for science. You have described it as the software of life. I know at one point you said it was a computer created life and some of the writers about your announcement almost acted as if this is the creation of Frankenstein. Now to put it in perspective, without in any way diminishing what you achieved, the–you had to have a life to build on. You didn’t develop a life from scratch. Isn’t that right?

{Venter.} That is absolutely correct. We, as Dr. Fauci said, we copied basically a genome of known organism….. If we [had tried] to design something new, the odds are pretty low that it would have worked. Ninety-nine out of 100 of our experiments failed. Even with one error out of a million in the genetic code, we did not get life. So we copied life and we used a living cell to boot up that life. So it is, as all life on this planet, it has been life out of life. It is not new life from scratch.

{Waxman} And as I understand it, the genome for this bacteria is about a million base pairs they use to make up strands of DNA. If we compare that with a human being, we are talking about one million to around three billion. Is that correct?

{Venter.} Well, sir we have–if we count the genome components from both our parents, we have six billion letters in our genetic code. If you were looking under a microscope and you could see the human chromosomes, the piece we just made would be so small as to be invisible. So it is a gargantuan leap from what we did to anything in human beings.

{Waxman} So people who are worried about human beings being created should relax.”

[Editorial comment: personally I think that Venter made a minor error by trying to make the difference in size between a bacterial genome and a human genome visual by using a mental image of human chromosomes seen through a microscope.  It’s not an image that most lay people would immediately have ready in their heads.  If you’re ever in Venter’s situation, think in advance about the analogies you want to use — for example, he could have said that if you think of Synthia’s genome as a single brick, then the human genome would be the size of 400 houses (you can calculate the number of bricks in a house using this calculator, it turns out.  I love the web. Boom-de-yada.)  But anyway, the point got across.]

And here is Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases, responding to a question from Congressman Frank Pallone, NJ, about what can be done to prevent synthetic biology from being used for evil purposes:

” [L]et me answer that question, Mr. Pallone, in a way that I think some people get a little bit confused about the balance between what can be done good and what can be done bad. Right now, microbes themselves, in their own evolutionary capacity to mutate, to change when you try and treat, to have someone manipulate, without even going near synthetic biology, the possibility of doing really bad things exists. The bad guys are not going to listen to any rules. They are going to do what they want. They do not even need this technology. So this technology has a much greater applicability to doing something really good because this type of technology doesn’t exist to do–for example, you have heard of some of the things that could be done. There is not a microbe out there saying you know what I am really waiting to do, mutate myself so I could make billions of gallons of fuel. But there are a lot of microbes that are already out there mutating, that anybody can manipulate.

{Pallone.} So you are–if you know, again, I am trying to understand you as best I can, you are saying that this new technology really doesn’t add much to the ability to do bad stuff. It is pretty much already out there.

{Fauci.} Overall, Mr. Pallone, the answer is I agree with that statement. It adds much more to what can be done in a positive sense than it pushes the envelope of what you can do in the bad sense. Because there are already enough things existing out there that if people with nefarious motives wanted to do it, they could do it. They do not need synthetic biology to do it.

{Pallone.} Okay. Well, that is very valuable.”

This is a great example of answering the question behind the question.  What Pallone asked was whether there were any additional precautions that should be taken to prevent synthetic biology from being used by terrorists.  Without dismissing the question, Fauci managed to point out that the concern is misplaced — and to remind the questioner that there are potentially great benefits to come from synthetic biology.

The NIH Directors are the great unsung heroes and heroines of basic science.  One may think of them as mainly there to decide who gets which grants; but actually much of their time is spent at committees like this, patiently explaining science to Congress.  What was Fauci doing at a hearing on synthetic biology anyway?  It seems that someone decided that because “Synthia” is a microorganism, and some microorganisms cause infectious diseases, Fauci was the person who should take responsibility for the situation.  I guess someone has to.

Perhaps I should listen to the talks from the bioethics commission after all. It seems like the least I can do.

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