Age of Excessions Interlude: Biology, or the Drugs Win the Drug War.

Understanding what the Venter Institute really did today

The short answer is that they created a wholly synthetic genome and put it in a yeast cell. This goes towards creating a minimal cell; figuring out how little DNA you need to make a barebones organism. This leaves lots of extra possible genetic space to making that minimal cell do stuff we want, whether it be pee out biofuels or Prozac, eat Gulf of Mexico oil, or glow in the presence of melamine, cancer, or anger. With a minimal and reusable platform, doing any of these things just becomes a coding problem. And not even a novel coding problem, because we already have Nature to reverse engineer from. Nature uses the same platform, and at some point or another has already solved all these problems.

It’s techno-exciting, but fundamentally, it’s the next level of fine-grained resolution on the control of our environment, which has been our species’ trick from the beginning. Venter and his cohort are trying to replace petroleum, (and control the replacement, and pretty much rule the world as a result) and others are trying to create complex cancer fighting biologics. Some sweet, wonderful people from the nicer parts of biomed are even trying to figure out how to make a cheap suite of biologic drugs to treat the horrible helminthic NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases) that are destroying the lives of about 1.5 billion of the world’s poor. This task will be made vastly simpler with a platform like the minimal cell, at least in theory.

But there’s a paradox built into our tendency to seek more environmental control. The more control we have, the more unpredictable our world becomes. This is because all the other humans with their unpredictable and hidden desires can now also control our environment.

While biopunditry is talking about biofuel, cancer treatment, and growing extinct mammoths, I wanted to bring the implications of this work out of the towers of ivory and industry and down to earth.

Today, we lost the drug war. Oh, it will run around for a while, unaware that it is dead, but we have decisively lost.

You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.

It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.

What synthbio is inventing right now is the true Bittorrent for things. It’s a platform for generating and sharing materials just this side of geology, since nearly everything but rocks is made by life. Right now you can think of it has having an interface so bad only a few people in the world can actually use it, and our hope for being in control is that the interface stays bad as long as possible. In the history of technology, that has rarely worked in the long term.

Craig Venter is not, despite his press, the smartest guy on the planet. He is not savant like, leaps and bounds in front of everyone and everything else. He isn’t the only one working on this. He’s maybe slightly in front, but probably not. If he is, it’s by inches. This is perhaps his Trinity, or the proof of concept right before it. It’s momentous, but it won’t stay contained.

This is on the scale of nukes, but not for long. Nukes are hard to build, requiring mind-boggling equipment and leave a kind of scent where ever they go. They can only really be used for magawatt power generation, and blowing shit up. Bio can be used for nearly anything you, me, or Charlie Stross can dream up. Imagine trying to stop proliferation if the atomic material centrifuges literally grew on trees and the fissile material floated freely through the air, and tended to show up in great amounts on bread you left out too long.

When you think of this, you can think of seeing a dodo someday, or Jurassic Park, or even taking a drug that a doctor grew just for you. But keep in mind the strangeness of the human imagination and the strength of human desires. A thousand weird Somas are coming, too.

14 thoughts on “Age of Excessions Interlude: Biology, or the Drugs Win the Drug War.

  1. Matt

    Interesting scenario; reminds me a bit of the “designer drugs” from Transmetropolitan (and I’m sure other stories). How far off do you think all this is? I’m guessing it will be quite a while, but I don’t know enough about the technology to make any sort of prediction worth a damn.

  2. Matt Moran

    Might also be the end of the drugs thing generally – if the drug addicted scientists managed to get the drug-pooping organism to live inside a human host without ill-effect to that host, they could effectively secure a lifetime’s supply of just enough of the stuff to stop the bad effects of cold turkey, & never have to do anything ever again to score. Just inject themselves with the heroin or coke bug & relax.

  3. Nile

    Another Charlie Stross fan.

    A prediction: the technology will be used in ways that absolutely no-one could’ve predicted. Among other things, we can make *any* patenred pharmaceutical… But if we can make anything, the limiting factor is knowing what to make – and we’ve barely scratched the surface of the ‘proteome’, the vast universe of things tgat living cells make and do. Let alone the things that they might respond to in ways – like narcotic effects – that are ‘off label’

  4. David

    “…if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory.”
    True, but if we do that, what will the police use to justify their existence? What about the politicians— what will they lie about? Good article, Quinn.

  5. CM

    One consequence I see from this, is that rogue nations (not controlled by US interests) will weaponizing from this within a few years. These weapons will be highly unpredictable in their global impact. That means US national defense forces will see no option but to wipe out these nations within a matter of months. Nuclear war with North Korea first and this year.

  6. Jef

    Yes and No. I’ll agree that bacteria could produce drugs that occur naturally like Cocaine, THC, and Peyote, but I doubt you’ll produce the all the synthetic drugs like LSD and MDMA.

    I’d envision two main applications for this technology in recreational drug use :

    (1) Naturally occurring drugs could be produced in a more pure form.

    Coca leaves makes a wonderful stimulant tea that’s completely harmless, but the purified form is extremely potent. Drug lords control the purification and shipping, but maybe the purification labor could be bypassed by using bacteria. Similarly, now harmless drugs like THC might become available in a more concentrated form that’s actually dangerous.

    (2) Entirely new drugs based around this production mechanism.

    MDMA was discovered fairly recently. I’m sure we’ll invent all manor of new toys.

  7. Rich B

    You know, it is unfortunate but I don’t know the long term negative possibilities involved with this. It is possible that something created in this manner might actually prove harmful to us or to other parts of our ecosystem and run out of control. This can be a very dangerous thing to play with until we are better able to really manipulate our own health and biology.

    So I find this concerning.

  8. NemaVeze

    The Napster-of-heroin scenario reminds me of The Ring more than anything. You can copy it and pass it around to people, and then it kills you. Scale up and repeat.

  9. quinn Post author

    gawp: excellent point.

    NemaVeza: Long term opiate addiction isn’t really that much of a problem if it’s well managed. I mean, you’d be better off without the addiction, but it’s certainly much less dangerous than nicotine if you have a safe regular source.

    Rich B: There’s grounds for concern, though I’d suggest they’re probably vastly different from what people are currently concerned with. For instance, I’m not very worried about a synth organism running amuck in the natural world. With how harsh life is naturally, it would be like sending a baby toddling across a freeway. A modified existing organism has a much better chance of survival, though. Even then, we aren’t sure how great it would be.

  10. quinn Post author

    Jef: It would certainly be harder to do LSD than heroin. Though to be fair, the totally synth drugs don’t seem to be the addictive one, with the exception of the amphetamines. What new drugs people will create is the obvious and interesting question.

  11. david

    There have been calls for a moratorium on this technique.

    An analogy against the moratorium:

    A moratorium on the bio-engineered yeast solely because of drug production is like preventing the internet solely because it can be used to distrubute porn.

  12. Simon

    You do know that synthesising drugs have been commonplace for about 10 years? Insulin is the most famous example but there are others as well.

    This breakthrough of creating a synthetic life form have done nothing to take us forward in the process of biological production of drugs. It is a impressive achievement, but it does not focus on that area.

    If you are afraid of bacteria that are tailored to make drugs, then you should have started to debate this before the turn of the millennium… 😉

  13. AChemist

    Greetings, I am new to viewing your site, but I want to leave a comment. I find this field of endeavor to be interesting in light of its meddling in nature angle. If one reads seminal texts like BeChamp’s Blood and Its Third Element and considers the philosophy behind that work in light of issues of diet and energy balance it is relatively easy to see that “treatment” for “cancer” comes from within. All the ingredients for treatment exist in present day and it is aliphatic medicine and “science” that have so lost their way. This is not to sat this will not go places. This is not to say that this is interesting, sexy, etc. It is not a direct cost effective path to the goal. Wheat grass juice, for example, is a far more effective single instance than this mega-circle J. Take care, A.

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