An engineer teaches her colleagues to share their toys

In her synthetic biology lab at Stanford, Christina Smolke designs circuits and switches using biological components, work that may lead to yeast that crank out medicines or ways to reprogram the immune system. Winner of the 2009 World Technology Award in biotechnology for doing work of “the greatest likely long-term significance” in her field, Smolke is also involved with several open-science initiatives designed to help scientists work together more effectively. She recently discussed her research and open-science efforts with Science News staff writer Rachel Ehrenberg.

Biotechnology has traditionally been and is still heavily dependent on … a lot of people being less interested in sharing their network.

Is your research about creating new things or mimicking what nature does?
We’re often trying to mimic something that can be found in nature, but we are trying to do it in a different context. Biology is very good at producing very complex molecules that have very interesting bioactive properties that we use as drugs to treat different types of disease. Many times the organisms that do these very interesting chemical processes are things like trees or corals that are not easy to grow, or take a longer time and more resources and energy to grow. So an alternative to trying to develop large-scale methods for growing the natural organism is to elucidate the chemistries that are encoded in these organisms and then harness them and put them into simpler organisms, like bacteria or yeast, that grow very quickly and that we have infrastructure in place to grow in very large volumes.

What are the risks? Could this work help terrorists make anthrax?
No, but I think it’s very important to acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns. But there are concerns with any technology, right? Technologies are important because they advance our existence, our quality of life, but they also can be misused. With synthetic biology in particular, the concerns are more … to make it easier and more scalable to build biological systems. And so if that goal is realized and people can start building new organisms from scratch, which is certainly not possible right now … it is important to think about and put appropriate regulations in place. There will always be people who are looking to misuse technology, and so I think what’s important as a global society is to really encourage the healthy and constructive development of communities around those technologies, the researchers that are developing those technologies and also the users of those technologies. And the more of that we have … then the fewer people you have working on the misuses. It’s important to note that the technologies themselves will be used to counter misuse as well. So with the anthrax example, you could use technology to develop very sensitive methods of detection.

You’re involved in several open-science initiatives including Open Wet Ware and iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. What is open science and why is it needed?
There are certain people in the community that recognize … that building out open technology platforms is the way you really advance the field, and this is certainly borne out in other areas of technology like computer science. So the initiatives were started by a community of people who were trying to cultivate that culture within synthetic biology. This is a really different way of thinking about things within the realm of biotechnology. Biotechnology has traditionally been and is still heavily dependent on patents, on trade secrets, on a lot of people being less interested in sharing their work. So this is a definite culture shift for the broader biological research community.

What is Open Wet Ware?
Open Wet Ware is basically a Web-based community interface that allows people to contribute information and share information. A lot of the memberships are research laboratories, and people can post a question and share information about protocols that they are using, what they find is working and what doesn’t work. So it’s a way for a community of people working on similar things to share their knowledge.

What about iGEM?
iGEM is an undergraduate competition, and the basic idea is you have teams of students from different universities working over the summer on designing and building a biological system. And the real meat of it is you have this parts registry, which consists of parts contributed by teams of previous years. So teams this year can take those parts and reuse them and build upon all the knowledge base that came before that…. As you begin to piece parts together, you can build more complex functions…. So the idea is you take these more simple components that encode basic functions and start linking them and integrate the different pieces together.