SAN JOSE, Calif. – Bay Area futurists and their fans gathered Sunday in a coming-of-age celebration for the fledgling field of synthetic biology, which builds living entities from lifeless chemicals.

With its young roots firmly secured in Bay Area universities, this new science aims to transform genetic approaches to research in medicine, energy and agriculture – building microbes that kill cancer, yeast that produces fuel or spiders that spin Kevlar-strength thread.

At the weekend’s first-ever “Convergence ’08” conference at the Computer History Museum, leaders will exchange news from the front lines of research, hoping to excite the public about synthetic biology in the same way that developers of integrated circuits in the 1960s ignited the field of semiconductor electronics. The conference will also feature debates on nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and longevity.

But opponents are organizing their own movement, as well. In an invitation-only meeting in San Francisco on Thursday, 80 activists discussed strategies to contain the research. They fear it could accidentally escape from the labs of well-intentioned scientists into the environment – or be used by terrorists to make deadly diseases.

“The Bay Area is the hub of research,” said Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society. “So if there are any so-called ‘bioerrors,’ with release into the environment, we would suffer the impact. We have an obligation to urge greater societal dialogue, and regulation.”

The young “synbio” engineers and biologists, almost all under the age of 40, are heirs to the genetic recombinant movement of the 1970s, which turned the Bay Area into the birthplace of biotechnology.

But their ambitions go far beyond those of genetic modification, which simply moves a single gene from one organism into another, like swapping out light bulbs.

Synthetic biology uses chemically created pieces of DNA to build genes and insert them into an empty cell – in essence, custom-building an organism from scratch.

The promise of synthetic biology is twofold. By learning how to assemble the minimal genetic requirements for survival, scientists will better understand how life works. But their goals are also practical – these synthetic cells can be put to many uses.

“We’re dealing with systems on a scale we’ve not played with before,” said J. Christopher Anderson of the University of California-Berkeley. On the outside, his E. coli bacteria seems unremarkable. But it will carry DNA with instructions to release a toxin that is deadly to cancer.

“For millennia, man has manipulated natural systems to suit human needs. We’re taking it much further now,” said Anderson. “Using nature, we can design new systems that do not yet exist.”

Stanford University recently recruited bioengineer Drew Endy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build the foundations of synthetic biology with “BioBricks” – strands of DNA in standardized shapes that can snap together like Legos. Because each strand will perform a predictable function, the collection could turn Stanford into scientific equivalent of Kragen Auto Parts store.

At UC-Berkeley, Jay Keasling is using a yeast with 12 synthetic genes to crank out a precursor to the malaria drug artemisinin. The drug, isolated from a Chinese herb, is in short supply, so researchers have been seeking a way to develop it artificially. He says that within two to three years, his living chemical factory could produce enough drug to treat the entire world.

Christopher Voight, also of Berkeley, hopes to engineer a spider that can spin out silk that is 10 times stronger than Kevlar – but biodegradable. Other Berkeley scientists are hoping to build plant cells that create rivers of cheap fuel.

At the moment, no one has built a cell that can reproduce, creating progeny that carry the implanted DNA.

But activists worry that the day will come when anyone with a reasonably well-equipped genetics lab could order “cassettes” of DNA from commercial suppliers – and assemble deadly infectious agents like Ebola or smallpox, now confined to high-security laboratories.

Or what, they ask, if scientists succeed in building bacteria that can produce, say, explosives?

So far, the field is largely self-regulated – for instance, some companies that sell packages of DNA screen orders for potentially harmful sequences. And the technology is too expensive for curious amateurs. In a 2007 policy analysis, experts recommended precautions such as making owners of DNA synthesizers register their machines with the government.

Activists say that such steps might not be enough. “At this point, we would like to see this not leave the lab – to keep it locked up,” said Jim Thomas, an activist with ETC Group, a technology watchdog based in Canada. “All of the Bay Area research universities are doing work, and there are now a dozen local synthetic biology startups, funded by Bay Area VC funding. That is what is raising alarm.”

There is a compelling argument for understanding how life works, said critics like Darnovsky and Thomas. But they seek far greater oversight, and are angered by the prospect of building of life for-profit – and even if regulated, there could be deadly consequences if mistakes happen.

The science has moved forward with breathtaking speed, said technology forecaster Paul Saffo, who will speak at the conference. “A host of technologies that seemed like daring science fiction just a few years ago are racing toward practical application,” he said.

“The conference is a unique opportunity to look into the coming future, examine its implications, and prepare for the vast surprises in store for us all.”

(c) 2008, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-16-08 1714EST

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