The Rea[ Promise of Synthetic Biotogy
Scientists are closing in on the abilityto make life from scratch, with potential consequences both good and bad
BY LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS
I have seen the future, and it is now.
Those words came to mind again as I recently
listened to Craig Venter, one of those leading
the new areas of synthetic genomics and synthetic
biology. Every time I hear a talk on this
subject, it seems a new rhreshold in the artificial
manipulation and, ultimately, creation of life l-ras been passed.
Consider just some of the progress associated rvith the J. Craig
Venter Institute. In 2003 its researchers cleated a synthetic version
of the bacteriophage phiX174. ln 2007 they successfully
transformed one species of bacteria to another by genome transplantation.
Most recently, they deveioped methods for the coinplete
synthetic assembly of tl.re genome of the bacterium
My c op I a s m a ge n it a Ii um.
The techniques now developed make the feat of
sequencing the human genome in 2001 seem
prehistoric. Not only have rhe cost and speed - of sequencing evolved faster than those of fcomputer
chips, but the ability to use both '' I -)
chemistry and biology to synthesize new
complex organisms has undergone a revolution
in the past five years. Instructions
embedded in synthetic gene sequences
can now be implanted in foreign cells
and thereby cause those cells to express
proteins; those proteins, in turn, build
nerv functioning copies of the life-forms
whose instruction manual is in the embedded
sequences. Venter calls this cycle "softrvare that creates its own
hardware." I expect to hear news soon of the successful creation
of the first completelv artificial life-form, built from scratch and
not alive until the scientists assembled it.
Semiconductor nanotechnologv has been heralded for more
than a decade, but I believe it ri'iil pale beside the ability of biotechnology
to transform life and society. Imagine the impact of
piggybacking on nature's majesty and designing living systems
that can perform tasks not found in nature, from microbes that
make gasoline or eat carbon dioxide to create nonbiodegradable
plastic building materials to organisms designed to surgically and
strategically operate on cancer cells. I expect that within 50 vears
the world's economy will be driven not by computer-generated information
but by biologically generated softrvare.
Of course, as Spiderman would sa,v, rvith great power comes
great responsibility. Hackers now create software viruses that periodically
disable huge computer networks. \7ith the ability to
make DNA sequences to order has risen the specter of garagebased
DNA hackers who might terrorize the world-intentionally
or accidentally-by re-creating the Ebola virus or the 1918 fl:.
Each of those disease organisms has a genetic code far smaller
than that of the recently s.'nthesized M. genitaliunu. One could
also imagine producing, again perhaps r"rnwittingly, viruses that
are immune to existing vaccines.
Some may fear the existence of new life-forms that might attack
a11 life on earth or at least human life. This fear is probably
misplaced. Life has sr-rrvived for more than three billion years because
it is robust, and almost no mutations can easill'outrvit the
defense mechanisms built up through eons of exposure to
potential pathogens. Venter's argument that new naturally
emerging diseases are a far greater threat than new artifi
cial diseases seems relatively compelling.
Nevertheless, there have been, until fairly recently,
few checks on the unfettered reproduction
of generic information. As the abilitl'to
' synthesize more complex biological systems
has increased, however, the research
community has put in place a voluntary system
of restrictions, for example, on the fulfillment
of commercial orders for genetic sequences
that correspond to portions of potentially
lethal organisms. At present, the
technological know-how associated with developing
synthetic biolcQy laboratories with
malice aforetl.rought is probably beyond the means of even sophisticated
terrorist networks. Moreover, it is important not to let misplaced
t-ears of Armageddon unduly restrict scientific work with
great potential to benefit humankind.
I have alrvays felt that, aside from research that violates universal
human mores, when it comes to technological applications,
that which can be done will be done. What we need to do is rigorouslv
attempt to anticipate what may be possible so that rve can
minimize the risks and maximize rhe benefits. 'We need to walk
into the future, no matter how unnerving, with open eyes if society
is to keep pace with technology. r
Lawrence M. Krauss; a theoretical physicist, commentLttor
and book awtbor, is Foundation Professor and director
of the Origins Initiatiue at Arizon;t State Uniuersity
( h ttp : // kraLt s s.faculty. a su. e du).
32 scteHrtnc AMERTcAN February 2010