Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?


Michael Specter in The New Yorker:

“What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?” Drew Endy asked, the first time we met in his office at M.I.T., where, until the summer of 2008, he was assistant professor of biological engineering. (That September, he moved to Stanford.) Endy is among the most compelling evangelists of synthetic biology. He is also perhaps its most disturbing, because, although he displays a childlike eagerness to start engineering new creatures, he insists on discussing both the prospects and the dangers of his emerging discipline in nearly any forum he can find. “I am talking about building the stuff that runs most of the living world,” he said. “If this is not a national strategic priority, what possibly could be?”

Endy, who was trained as a civil engineer, spent his youth fabricating worlds out of Lincoln Logs and Legos. Now he would like to build living organisms. Perhaps it was the three well-worn congas sitting in the corner of Endy’s office, or the choppy haircut that looked like something he might have got in a tree house, or the bicycle dangling from his wall—but, when he speaks about putting together new forms of life, it’s hard not to think of that boy and his Legos.

Endy made his first mark on the world of biology by nearly failing the course in high school. “I got a D,” he said. “And I was lucky to get it.” While pursuing an engineering degree at Lehigh University, Endy took a course in molecular genetics. He spent his years in graduate school modelling bacterial viruses, but they are complex, and Endy craved simplicity. That’s when he began to think about putting cellular components together.