Friday, May 21, 2010

"Is Biology Technology?" - Robert Carlson at Reiter's

Rob Carlson came to Reiter's Books on Wednesday evening, May 19, to talk about his new book, 'Biology is Technology,' published this year by Harvard University Press. Rob deftly pulled together a narrative of an industry that builds on biological processes to create and deploy drugs, fuels, feedstock, and more, much more. In fact, the core of synthetic biology is its openness to inventing an unlimited stream of products and processes. Rod used vivid examples to untangle the obstacles and potential of biotechnology - describing innovations already in the market and ones to expect. In doing so Rob describes how biotechnology fits into the intellectual property, economic, and public policy spheres.

Vital cases tell the story. Even though drugs are on the market to treat and cure malaria, these drugs are expensive and out of reach of many of most sufferers. Production of the drugs using microbes in a process smaller to brewing beer dramatically reduces costs. In the absence of drug company initiative or public health commitment, the Gates Foundation stepped in as financier. But the Gates Foundation, with its billions, cannot step in to fund research on all drugs worthy of investment. Who decides? Is the decision too important for a market decision? And who funds and organizes drug delivery - year after year?

'Biology is Technology' is something of a misnomer as a title. The book and Rob Carlson's talk say this is not so. The subtitle hints at the complexity - The Promise, Peril, and Business of Engineered Live. Biology is as much a social project, raising issues of ethics, and public purpose. Rob Carlson is an industry insider who has an exquisite sense of how to step outside and see the big picture.

Jim Wood

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