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Taking Control of Biology

Most people have not even heard of synthetic biology, but a growing number think it represents a kind of epochal turning point in the life sciences. With synthetic biology, they say, biology is turning the same corner that chemistry rounded about one hundred years ago, when chemists began to go beyond merely studying chemicals to designing and building them. Now, instead of just trying to figure out how living organisms work – “analytic biology,” as it were – we’ll learn how to build them, either by making sweeping genetic changes to existing organisms or by creating essentially new kinds of organisms from scratch.

And then we can really put these organisms to use. We’ll make single-celled factories, tools, and waste processing plants that churn out desirable chemical compounds, absorb and break down undesirable ones, or troll about carrying out helpful tasks. A cheap antimalarial drug and a new way of producing fuel from plant matter – cheaper and better for the environment – are two high-profile applications that many think are close to market. Other applications involve the production of plastics, cosmetics, tools for cleaning up pollution, and health care interventions.

“This is just at the beginning,” Jay Keasling, one of the leading figures in the field, recently told a reporter for Science. “This is just a golden period for this area.”

At a recent international conference in Hong Kong, some suggested that synthetic biology is more than just the next wave of biotechnology; it is vital to the future of humanity because it offers the only plausible solution to problems like global warming.

Interestingly enough, though, what “synthetic biology” refers to is somewhat open-ended. The field is not defined by any particular scientific discovery or technological advance. Several technologies are often identified as crucial to the field’s emergence, including techniques for gene sequencing, gene transfer, the fabrication of genetic sequences, and computer modeling of biological interactions at the molecular level, but what is crucial about these technologies is that they have become relatively easy, inexpensive, and reliable. Some of the basic insights and technological breakthroughs have been around for decades. Indeed, the Polish geneticist Waclaw Szybalski coined the term “synthetic biology” in 1974, and he declared during a presentation in Hong Kong that the dawn of synthetic biology occurred in 1828, when the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler learned how to create urea without the aid of kidneys.

Perhaps the difference between synthetic biology and analytic biology is just the difference between synthesis and analysis – a difference in goals more than of technology, and a gradual development rather than a sudden event. Or perhaps what distinguishes the field is basically social: a bunch of people have now come together, staked claims in the field, and begun to promulgate a vision many of them share of the endeavor they’ve embarked on. At the heart of this phenomenon is the BioBricks Foundation, which organized the Hong Kong conference and whose president, Drew Endy, laid out a sweeping agenda over the course of several presentations there.

The field Endy envisions would have an engineering orientation as much as or more than a science orientation. It would aim at the development, characterization, and distribution ofstandardized biological parts that could be assembled for use in new organisms. Access to new parts might be facilitated with some version of an open source legal framework. Teams of people would collaborate to design new parts and ensure that they are effective, well understood, and well documented. Public-private collaborations would fund their work. As in other engineering fields, much of the work would be done by people with bachelor’s degrees. Grass-roots innovation, as exemplified by the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, would be typical. Indeed, the BioBricks Foundation asserts that one of its goals is “to develop and provide educational and scientific materials to allow the public to use and improve existing BioBrick standard biological parts, and contribute new BioBrick standard biological parts.”

This is not science as usual. This is science as social movement.

It also raises social concerns in an especially sharp way. For example, if “the public” is doing synthetic biology, can we control what’s being made? In 2002, scientists at SUNY, Stony Brook, synthesized a polio genome from scratch and then published details about their work in Science. In 2001, a team in Australia figured out a way of tweaking mousepox, which is similar to smallpox, so that it is much likelier to be fatal when it infects a mouse, and they published their findings in the Journal of Virology. Do we really want “the public” taking these results and running with them?

Other possible scenarios are less dire but just as gloomy. A report from the ETC Group, an organization that describes itself as dedicated to “the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights,” predicts that the ability to produce fuel from sugars could lead to a “sugar economy” that is dominated by a few huge corporations and wreaks havoc on traditional agricultural economies.

Still other concerns have to do less with consequences than with implications – less with human welfare than with the infringement of values some people hold dear. Some years ago, Prince Charles lamented that genetic modification had opened the way to “the industrialisation of life.” If so, then arguably synthetic biology is paving the way.

As the buzz in Hong Kong made plain, however, the moral issues raised by synthetic biology do not all tell against the technology. There really does seem to be great potential in it.

Certainly that promise is part of the field’s self-conception. More than one person in Hong Kong described synthetic biology as the province of a “bunch of do-gooders.” Failure to come up with an effective plan for moving the field forward, said Endy at the end of one presentation, would be “borderline criminal,” given the bright prospects.

The trick is to make sure the plan has the right safeguards and limits. And that requires thinking carefully about how the field is likely to develop, what social consequences are likely, what our values are, and what we can do to shape the field. Perhaps this thinking, too, can become part of the movement that is called “synthetic biology.”

Gregory E. Kaebnick is editor of Bioethics Forum and Hastings Center Report, and is a Research Scholar at The Hastings Center.

Published on: November 10, 2008
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Science and Society

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