This morning, the Convergence 08 conference continued with a panel of experts on synthetic life. One of the panel members observed that genetic engineering is almost as accessible as computer programming in the early 80s, when teenagers were able to become involved inexpensively. Another panel member responded skeptically that there are serious risks associated with synthetic life, particularly when introduced to natural environments, and more evidence should be gathered in favor of benefits before proceeding further. On the subject of benefits, other panelists agreed there are risks, but that risk management techniques will come with time. The most immediate benefit of synthetic life will probably be biofuels. Benefits for cardiovascular health, alzheimers and diabetes may arise from products entering human trials soon. The panelists debated the degree of risk associated with use of artificially selected insects, and emphasized the importance of rigorous research and precaution.
The panelists were asked whether persons from non-biology backgrounds could make a difference in the biotech industry. They agreed that there are an increasing number of opportunities for engineers and infotech experts to become involved. However, the field is not yet ready for most persons that require education on the basics of biochemistry. As things become more automated, the wet lab may become less necessary, and access will expand to persons of more diverse backgrounds.
This is an area where I have a lot to learn. Thanks to good teachers, some of my favorite subjects in school were chemistry and biology. I enjoyed the lab experiments, unit conversion exercises and the artificial selection of fruit flies. However, the fields are broad and complex, presenting mind-boggling opportunity and risk.