In a new book called “The Biologist’s Imagination,” authors William Hoffman and Leo Furcht from the University of Minnesota Medical School take a spin through the history of biological innovation in an effort to shed light on current trends and expected future developments. The authors weave historical threads—such as pioneering studies of genetic traits in the mid-19th century and the effects of the animals and diseases brought to the Americas in the wake of Columbus crossing the Atlantic—to help readers make sense of what’s happening today. They track biological and technological innovation from its earliest days, but focus on what’s happening now: the state of the pharmaceutical industry, direct-to-consumer genetic testing, scientific intellectual property, and more. The book covers a number of topics relevant to Techonomy, so we chatted with Hoffman to find out more.
When it comes to synthetic biology, there’s an inherent tension between fears of genetic modification and the critical need to use resources more efficiently. How does this get resolved?
In this country, you’ve got a very interesting split. It’s been 20 years now since the Flavr Savr tomato was approved by the FDA. There have been countless studies, and they haven’t shown anything convincing that we should be alarmed about, as far as food intake is concerned. (For effects on the environment, the jury’s still out.) But you have a very strong reaction against GM food in some quarters. I think this is going to take a long time, and scientific studies showing that food from genetic modification is safe will have marginal impact. This goes beyond scientific evidence and into the cultural realm.
We’re also seeing a lot of turmoil in the nascent field of consumer genomics. Where do you see that heading, particularly given FDA’s actions with 23andMe last year?
Consumer genomics will persevere. People want the information and there’s no reason they’re not entitled to it. But the FDA does have the responsibility to insist that what companies say about personal health information based on genetic data is accurate and can be verified. There’s no question that new models of ongoing regulatory reform and standards are needed so that agencies can adapt. One of the big problems we have at agencies such as FDA is rapid turnaround of personnel. You’ve got to be able to hire smart people and keep them employed over a longer period of time—they’ve got to like what they do and be compensated decently for what they do, otherwise they will leave. If you want to have a top-notch and moderate regulatory framework, it’s got to be funded and you’ve got to keep people on board.
You talk about the importance of open-access publishing, which allows anyone to read research papers without pricey subscriptions to scientific journals. What’s happening in this arena now?
Federal funding agencies are moving forcefully into mandates that journal articles be available at least after a certain period of time; that’s also happening in the European Union. A lot of this is being driven by patient advocacy groups. They’re tired of seeing information sequestered—they want it available so patients are served.
Your book covered regions such as Research Triangle Park that have emerged as major biotech hubs. What lessons can we glean from these successful clusters that might apply to cities attempting to revitalize, like Detroit, where Techonomy is hosting a public conference in September?
The solid research base and physical infrastructure are critical for this field: how that base is supported, locally as well as federally, and how it links its activities with the local industrial community. As these communities revitalize, simply creating greater self-awareness through networking and entrepreneurial associations becomes all the more important. The tacit communication within these concentrations is very important; people need to know what other people are doing. Another thing is to use existing research and industrial strength to create the conditions for existing embedded know-how to move into bio. With respect to Detroit, Wayne State University is strong in biomaterials research. So is Ford.
What is the role you see for the growing group of amateurs getting involved in biological research, the trend known as biohacking or DIYbio?
I am intrigued. We’re fairly early in a biological revolution and the tools are coming fast and furious. There’s always been a tension, even in the beginning of the industrial revolution, between the credentialed and the uncredentialed. So-called biohackers are largely uncredentialed in the academic sense, but they are very creative people. Many of them work in established community labs now, like BioCurious. They’re involved in crowdsourced design, and they get crowdfunding. They’re outside the standard mainstream practice of laboratory science, but they’re going to be part of this.