Biology Is Technology

Front Cover
Harvard University Press, 2010 - Business & Economics - 279 pages

Technology is a process and a body of knowledge as much as a collection of artifacts. Biology is no different—and we are just beginning to comprehend the challenges inherent in the next stage of biology as a human technology. It is this critical moment, with its wide-ranging implications, that Robert Carlson considers in Biology Is Technology. He offers a uniquely informed perspective on the endeavors that contribute to current progress in this area—the science of biological systems and the technology used to manipulate them.

In a number of case studies, Carlson demonstrates that the development of new mathematical, computational, and laboratory tools will facilitate the engineering of biological artifacts—up to and including organisms and ecosystems. Exploring how this will happen, with reference to past technological advances, he explains how objects are constructed virtually, tested using sophisticated mathematical models, and finally constructed in the real world.

Such rapid increases in the power, availability, and application of biotechnology raise obvious questions about who gets to use it, and to what end. Carlson’s thoughtful analysis offers rare insight into our choices about how to develop biological technologies and how these choices will determine the pace and effectiveness of innovation as a public good.

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I had great hopes for this book, which is described as THE book which explains the current environment of DIY or Garage Biology. While in the beginning he does a good job detailing how bioengineering is moving out of the labs of large corporations and into the garages of do-it-yourselfers, I was hoping for more technical details about how it's being done. This book equates the development of the aircraft industry after the Wright Brothers with the nascent stages of genetic engineering, opining that it is moving along the same path. He spends more time than I liked on policy, the benefits of open-source engineering, legal complications/intellectual property rights, and structure of the industry. Having said this, he does do a good job making the point that we are on the cusp of an amazing revolution. I'm in! 

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This is a study of the economics of biology. It reviews the trajectory of technology, biotech, genetic engineering and industrial projections. Gene-sequencing already has international sites and a critical mass is evolving for a growth in synthetic parts exchange. Opensource is creating a participative market. Current applications include biobricks, iGEM, biofuels, and instant vaccines among many others. The turning point is that the human has become a product which redefines the producers and consumers themselves and increases the complexity of behaviors. Limits on innovation concerning rights and patents are discussed. There are risks of runaway effects which need to be better understood and monitored where possible. The opening questions about what biology is, and what biological engineering will be, are ongoing. Readers interested in bioinformatics would need additional sources. 

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About the author (2010)

Robert H. Carlson is a Principal at Biodesic LLC.

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