blue double helix

Bioethics Forum Essay

Synthetic Biology: A Study in Reinvention

An article in the October issue of Discover Magazine has a great line from Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford University who has become one of the foremost public figures in the field of synthetic biology. It’s not his comment about how, someday, synthetic biology might allow us to create a modified fungus that can turn a can of sawdust into a computer, although I understand why that caught the interviewer off guard. Great lede, but Endy has been saying things like that for years. Nor is it anything about the overall vision he offers of synthetic biology: the generation of standardized genetic parts that predictably do what they are designed to do and can be strung together in larger assemblies—in effect, genetic programs that can in turn be inserted into fungi, yeast, or bacteria cells and cause them to carry out the designer’s bidding without the designer even having to know very much about the underlying biology. Nope. Familiar stuff, all that.

No, for me, the fascinating line is the very last sentence in the interview: “We actually have a chance of reinventing civilization.” Usually, synthetic biology is thought of as offering a chance to reinvent nature, not civilization. That seems to be the point of talking about “synthetic” biology, “synthetic organism,” and “artificial life” in the first place: witness the book by George Church, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. These terms are meant to sound revolutionary, and the revolution is against the second part of each phrase—“biology,” “organism,” “life.” The first part is supposed to spin the second around.

The possibility that biotechnology could fundamentally change the human relationship to nature seems to me to be a decent starting point for the ethics of emerging biotechnologies. It should be examined right up front, before we really get going. Ideally, shouldn’t we try to strike a balance between altering nature to suit our demands and altering our demands to accommodate nature? Shouldn’t we sometimes hold back and just appreciate the world as we find it? I suspect this is a widely felt intuition, although it is hard to explain and defend and often remains inchoate, in the background, in debates about biotechnology.

It needs to be brought to the fore. Nonetheless, I’ve come to think that in synthetic biology, it is really pressing only for applications that could substantially change the natural world in front of us or in us. Using a “gene drive” to genetically modify an entire population of wild organisms is the easiest example of that. So would significantly enhancing human nature, if that became possible. Or simply creating a modified microbe that’s intended for a contained use but stands a meaningful chance of escaping into the environment and causing harm. Some nature-altering applications might still be a good idea. Maybe a few are even good for nature; altering American chestnuts to withstand chestnut blight, allowing them to reclaim their cornerstone place in Eastern forests, might be like that.

In principle, though, much work in synthetic biology might get beyond the question about nature, if only because it could, in principle, be limited to an industrial or medical context. This work is certainly about alteringorganisms, but it’s not about altering nature in the sense that could be intrinsically ugly to me.

Endy’s vision is that even the industrial applications could, done right, be beneficial to nature. “We are destroying environments, we are critically ripping away biodiversity,” he told the interviewer.  It’s the prospect that synthetic biology might be part of a solution that led Endy to say, “We actually have a chance of reinventing civilization.” In short, with synthetic biology, we could reinvent civilization to save nature.

We’ll see about that. Maybe. At the very least, though, we can move beyond the concern that the very idea that altering organisms is distasteful and take up questions about outcomes. What will be the effects of different applications of synthetic biology on human welfare, and for that matter, what will be the effects on the environment?

Questions about effects are not at all inchoate, but they can still be complex and difficult. Unlike concerns about altering nature, they’re easy to express, and everybody agrees that they’re worth thinking about. What can make them challenging is partly that the facts can be complex: just what will the organisms do, and what are the odds? How will the new modes of production change our economic and social structures? In addition, they’re complex because how we weigh the facts, perhaps even how we decide which facts to look for, may be a matter of values.

Questions about outcomes are questions about risks and benefits, but how do we decide what counts as a “risk” or a “benefit”? If an application contributes to human knowledge, is that a benefit? (The exploration of space is often justified that way.) Is a more equitable allocation of risks and benefits itself a benefit? Do concerns about the human relationship to nature figure in again, shaping our views of the outcomes? And how do we decide on the weight or greatness of a risk or benefit? Is it a matter of quantity—the number of deaths caused or years of life gained, the number of people made sadder or happier—or can it be affected by qualities—whether a death is gross or painful, whether happiness seems particularly fine?

Simple risk-averseness might also affect one’s views; some think that the rational way to think about risks and benefits is to see which outweighs the other, others that it makes more sense to lean toward the proven and navigate uncertainty warily. For the latter group, uncertainty has its own weight.

These are a few of the bigger values questions about outcomes. I and some colleagues will be examining them in the next few years through the Hastings project “Values in Impact Assessment,” funded by the National Science Foundation.

These questions are about civilization in a bunch of ways. They are about the effects of civilization, insofar as civilizations are made possible by new technologies. They are therefore about the kind of civilization we want to live in—both the way we want it to stand in relationship to nature and the way we want it to treat its citizens and other peoples. They are about the values that guide, enfold, in some sense constitute civilization. And they are about the organization and governance of civilization, insofar as a civilized society should find a way of allowing its values to determine its effects.

Either way, Endy’s right. We have a chance to reinvent civilization.

Gregory E. Kaebnick, editor of the Hastings Center Report and a research scholar, is co-principal investigator of the Hastings Center project on values in impact assessment.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 09/25/2014 05:08:31 PM |

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