Berkeley Forum hosts panel to discuss implications of biotechnology

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Taylor Vega/Staff

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Bringing animals back from extinction may one day no longer be the stuff of science fiction movies.

On Tuesday, three experts in the field of biotechnology spoke to UC Berkeley students and community members about the implications of incorporating technology into biological processes. The event was put on by the Berkeley Forum — a student organization that hosts events for the general public — and featured presentations by Andrew Hessel, a researcher at Autodesk Inc., Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Berkeley Biolabs and campus biology professor Rasmus Nielsen.

Hessel began the discussion by describing how the digital makeup of computers is comparable to the digital processes of DNA replication. Because of this, scientists can turn DNA sequences into digital files and then back into physical DNA, he said.

As scientists explore how to turn bits into atoms, Hessel says the possibilities for creating organisms from inorganic material seem limitless. Existing digital technologies could create plants, fuels, food — and humans.

“Biotechnologies are the things that will allow us to get out of this century without destroying our environment,” Hessel said.

Bethencourt, a self-identified “biohacker,” believes the future of biotech research with “citizen scientists,” rather than large corporations. Though audience members expressed doubt that nonprofessionals could succeed in such a futuristic field, Bethencourt says the necessary technologies already exist within the human body.

“We have nanotechnology — it exists, but it’s like an alien technology,” Bethencourt said. “It’s biology, but it’s like aliens dropped this nanotechnology in our laps, but we don’t have the manual.”

Nielsen shifted the argument to practical applications of biotechnology, specifically the sequencing of the human genome, which he says will revolutionize the health care industry. Nielsen envisions a world in which doctors have access to each patient’s personal genome, allowing them to diagnose and treat illnesses, as well as predict future diseases.

According to Nielsen, such advancements may also enable deliberate DNA editing, which raises ethical questions.

“Do we want to give ourselves the freedom to design our own children?” Nielsen said. “We’ll have to make the choice within the next few years, because the technology is there, and it’s starting to be used.”

Audience members also raised security concerns about how these technologies could be used — for example, technologies that allow doctors to target cancer cells could be used in warfare to target specific people in a group.

Additionally, if DNA sequencing becomes available to all computer users — which Hessel says is possible — people’s personal and familial information would be accessible with just a small DNA sample. The panelists acknowledged these issues but could not offer any concrete solutions.

“It’ll get weird,” Hessel said.

Contact Michelle Pitcher at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @michellepitcher.