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Current Topic: Biotechnology

Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia
Topic: Biotechnology 11:08 pm EST, Nov 15, 2009

Marge Simpson:

Bart, don't make fun of grad students! They just made a terrible life choice.

Dr. Nanochick:

As of May 1st, 2009, I am now "Dr. Nanochick". Too bad that title doesn't come with a pay raise.

David B. Searls, in PLoS Computational Biology:

While you may not relish extending your indentured servitude in academia, any disadvantage, financial and otherwise, can quickly be made up in the early years of your career in industry. In other words, trying to get off the mark quickly is not necessarily a good reason to choose industry over academia.

Do you want riches? Fame? A life at the frontiers of knowledge? The hurly-burly of the business world?

A somewhat more cynical view would be that in business you will spend seemingly endless hours in meetings and writing plans and reports, while in academia you will spend all that time and more in grantsmanship -- in this regard, you must pick your poison.

Trying to optimize a career decision based on current conditions is a bit like trying to time the stock market -- you are sure to be overtaken by events.

Now, if ever, is the time to be honest with yourself.

Andrew Lahde:

Today I write not to gloat. Instead, I am writing to say goodbye.


Life is too short to spend 2300 hours a year working on someone else's idea of what the right problems are.

Ridley Scott:

How close is cynicism to the truth?

They're almost on the same side of the line. Cynicism will lead you to the truth. Or vice versa.

David Foster Wallace:

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia

A Life Of Its Own
Topic: Biotechnology 9:03 pm EDT, Sep 21, 2009

Michael Specter:

The planet is in danger, and nature needs help.

Craig Venter:

It should be possible to assemble any combination of synthetic and natural DNA segments in any desired order.

Specter on Venter's comment:

That may turn out to be one of the most understated asides in the history of science.

What sorts of risk does that bring into play, and what sorts of opportunity?


I've always been a believer that the answer to bad speech is better speech.

Jay Keasling:

We have got to the point in human history where we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us.

From The World in 2009:

Someone once accused Craig Venter of playing God.

His reply was, "We're not playing."

Tom Knight:

Biology is the nanotechnology that works.

Kent Campbell:

This is not theoretical. This is real.

Richard Hamming:

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work.

Freeman Dyson:

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.

In the post-Darwinian era, biotechnology will be domesticated. There will be biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen.

From the pen of Natalie Dee:

Real Egg 1: What is going to happen to us when our chickens come out?

Real Egg 2: I don't know, man. I don't know.

Drew Endy:

My guess is that our ultimate solution to the crisis of health-care costs will be to redesign ourselves so that we don't have so many problems to deal with.

Jeff Goldblum, in Jurassic Park:

You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you want to sell it!

Drew Endy:

We are surfing an exponential now, and, even for people who pay attention, surfing an exponential is a really tricky thing to do. And when the exponential you are surfing has the capacity to impact the world in such a fundamental way, in ways we have never before considered, how do you even talk about that?

Julian Schnabel:

Being in the water alone, surfing, sharpens a particular kind of concentration, an ability to agree with the ocean, to react with a force that is larger than you are.

A Life Of Its Own

Morocco's Extraordinary Donkeys
Topic: Biotechnology 5:15 pm EDT, Aug 30, 2009

Susan Orlean:

The roads in the medina of Fez are so narrow that bumping into another person or a pushcart is no accident; it is simply the way you move forward, your progress more like a pinball than a pedestrian, bouncing from one fixed object to the next, brushing by a man chiseling names into grave markers only to slam into a drum maker stretching goat skin on a drying rack, then to carom off a southbound porter hauling luggage in a wire cart.

It was that stoic expression, of course. But even more, it was seeing, in that moment, the astonishing commingling of past and present--the timeless little animal, the medieval city and the pile of electronics--that made me believe that it was possible for time to simultaneously move forward and stand still. In Fez, at least, that seems to be true.

Stefan Klein:

The brain creates its own time, and it is this inner time, not clock time, that guides our actions. In the space of an hour, we can accomplish a great deal -- or very little.


As far as I could tell, the donkey was alone; there was no one in front of him or beside him, no one behind. I wondered if he was lost, or had broken away from his handler, so I asked the porter, who looked at me with surprise. The donkey wasn't lost, the man said. He was probably done with work and on his way home.


"Tell me, what is the price you want to pay?" Mohammed asked.

Ginia Bellafante:

There used to be a time if you didn't have money to buy something, you just didn't buy it.

Morocco's Extraordinary Donkeys

Do-it-yourself genetic sleuthing
Topic: Biotechnology 7:05 am EDT, May 13, 2009

Carolyn Johnson in the Boston Globe works the medical angle on DIY-bio:

Katherine Aull is searching for a killer that has stalked her family for generations. The 23-year-old MIT graduate uses tools that fit neatly next to her shoe rack.

Speaking of shoes ...

Lisa: Look at all those beautiful shoes! I know they're made from animals but WOW!
Marge: Mmmm, If only I didn't already have a pair of shoes.

George Church:

"There seems to be a very deep and growing curiosity about genetics that might dwarf electronics."

From last year, another Globe story about Zack Anderson, a curious MIT student:

"If a lot of people think hacker, they think of someone who illegally breaks into systems," Anderson said. "I don't at all think that's what hacker means. I think hacking is a culture of curiosity and exploration and learning and building and creating new things."

Also from last year:

Science brings uncertainties; innovation successfully copes with them. Society calls for both the passion for knowledge and its taming. This ambivalence is an inevitable result of modernity.

Neil Postman:

If we had known the impact the motor vehicle would have on life, would we have embraced it so thoroughly?

Louis Menand:

The interstates changed the phenomenology of driving.

William Deresiewicz:

I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers.

Do-it-yourself genetic sleuthing

In Attics and Closets, 'Biohackers' Discover Their Inner Frankenstein
Topic: Biotechnology 7:05 am EDT, May 13, 2009

Jeanne Whalen in the Wall Street Journal:

Are biohackers a threat to national security?

A few months ago, Katherine Aull talked about her hobby on DIY Bio, a Web site frequented by biohackers, and her work was noted in New Scientist magazine.

That's when the phone rang.


What you tell Google you've told the government.

How could Whalen write this article without mentioning Freeman Dyson:

I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.

Can it be stopped? Ought it to be stopped?

You might be able to guess his answer:

Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture.

George Church:

"The younger generation need something they feel they can do."

Some people are what you might call risk-averse:

Marge: I'd really like to give it a try!

Homer: I don't know, Marge, trying is the first step towards failure.

What are you waiting for?

Procrastination is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure, in that joyful state of self-forgetful inspiration that we call genius.

In Attics and Closets, 'Biohackers' Discover Their Inner Frankenstein

Biotechnology: From Scientific Tool to Domestic Pastime
Topic: Biotechnology 10:48 am EDT, Apr 26, 2009

Freeman Dyson is giving a public lecture on biotechnology.

Nassau Presbyterian Church (in Princeton, NJ) will host the first of three Sunday-morning lecture series on Science and Theology and Immigration and Asylum, starting on May 3, 9:15-10:15 a.m. in the assembly room.

On May 10, the church presents "Biotechnology: From Scientific Tool to Domestic Pastime" with Freeman Dyson. Dyson, professor emeritus of physics since 1994 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, will talk about the pros and cons regarding the possibility that biotechnology will evolve like computer technology.

From the archive:

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.

From a while back:

I am always happy to be in the minority.


The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people's hopes.

Biotechnology: From Scientific Tool to Domestic Pastime

Shocking science | The Economist
Topic: Biotechnology 10:07 am EST, Dec 26, 2008

From The World in 2009:

Someone once accused Craig Venter of playing God.

His reply was, “We’re not playing.”

That "someone" was ETC Group, about which Decius commented recently.

The apparently alarming comments about DNA synthesis should come as no surprise to anyone who read Darwin’s Surprise a year ago.

Also, Freeman Dyson has been asking these questions for years now:

First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally?


The question to ask is not, Are we safer? The question to ask is, Are we better off?

Fear not the explosion:

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners, who will use gene transfer to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also, biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture.

The revolution will not be rational:

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion.

See also, from the archive:

Scientists want to adopt a set of declarations to improve the security of research that uses DNA synthesis. A proponent discusses the whys and wherefores of this effort.

Shocking science | The Economist

Executable cell biology
Topic: Biotechnology 6:38 am EST, Nov 13, 2007

For fans of Our Biotech Future:

Computational modeling of biological systems is becoming increasingly important in efforts to better understand complex biological behaviors. In this review, we distinguish between two types of biological models—mathematical and computational— which differ in their representations of biological phenomena. We call the approach of constructing computational models of biological systems ‘executable biology’, as it focuses on the design of executable computer algorithms that mimic biological phenomena. We survey the main modeling efforts in this direction, emphasize the applicability and benefits of executable models in biological research and highlight some of the challenges that executable biology poses for biology and computer science. We claim that for executable biology to reach its full potential as a mainstream biological technique, formal and algorithmic approaches must be integrated into biological research. This will drive biology toward a more precise engineering discipline.

Authors are Jasmin Fisher of the Computational Biology group at Microsoft Research Cambridge and Thomas Henzinger, professor at EPFL.

Executable cell biology

Bacon Salt
Topic: Biotechnology 4:19 pm EST, Nov  4, 2007

You know it when you see it ...

Because everything should taste like bacon.

Click through for the official web site; the video is just a compilation of informal testimonials. I must say that the sight of young children enthusiastically shaking Bacon Salt on their steamed vegetables is more than a little disconcerting. (Buy it online.)

Bacon Salt

The mouse that shook the world
Topic: Biotechnology 9:39 am EST, Nov  4, 2007

About the mouse that Aubrey de Gray was looking for ...

It can run up to six kilometres at a speed of 20 metres per minute for five hours or more without stopping. It lives longer, has more sex, and eats more without gaining weight. Could the science that created this supermouse be applied to humans?


It lives longer and enjoys an active sex life well into old age – being capable of breeding at three times the normal maximum age.

"Our animals live longer and eat almost twice as much as ordinary mice – this is a model to study."

Be sure to watch the video. But whatever you do, don't think of these guys.

The mouse that shook the world

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