Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is there a moral line to draw in the world of synthetic biology: ethically acceptable and unethical?

The Rea[ Promise of Synthetic Biotogy
Scientists are closing in on the abilityto make life from scratch, with potential consequences both good and bad
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


  1. I believe that synthetic biology could have many potential risks, but along with those risks even more potential benefits. Just with any new area of research, there are unknowns about synthetic biology, but that ought not to discourage scientists from researching it. The thought of scientists assembling an entire life-form is rather scary. If scientists built an organism, who's to say they're not in entire control of it? There are obvious benefits in synthetic biology, but it also has the risk of being a slippery slope in what scientists may create and how those experiments are used. I do, however, think it is important to continue researching new things, but I think it must be done cautiously and with much regulation on how these synthetic creations are used.
    Alex Gustafson

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  3. I agree that we shouldn't generate unreasonable fear over the possibilities, but a strong dose of caution as we proceed with powerful new technologies seems reasonable.
    The ultimately debate of developing such technology is what if. If expertise is garnish in the wrong community and the synthetic biotechnology fell into the wrong hands, for example, the terrorists', disaster would strike. I think the author is looking at the situation through rosy red glass. Sure the benefits may outweigh the discussed possible dangers, but there could be far worst dangers out there that currently we do not know or we choose not to explore further. Humanity is certainly capable of wiping itself out. I am not arguing that we are being intentionally ignorant of the risks, but we are certainly blinded by the possible positive outcomes that could benefit humanity.
    -Handi Wu

  4. Reading the article, a brief comic book-esque laboratory scene flashed through my mind, sharpening my mind with an instant of paranoia. While this is was dramatic, the human error factor is still frighteningly relevant. Yet as Krauss says, “When it comes to technological applications, that which can be done will be done.” If this is so, we should focus on taking measures toward it being done right. If this means having high security facilities, so be it. The margin of the unknown is so great here, making it imperative for us to give a lot of thought toward what we can control, i.e., who has access to these resources and where such experiments are performed. If the public sees numerous regulations in place, the general fear could possibly decrease and the willingness to understand the significance of the procedures could go up.

  5. I am less worried about scientists creating a new life-form that goes awry and attacks humans, and more worried about the ethical implications of such technologies. Of course experimentation can lead to accidents and mishaps, but with careful and methodical research I think that science will advance as it has in the past. And for the most part we can agree that much of new technological and biochemical advances have been positive for society, prolonging life for those who previously might have a very short expectancy, giving people with disabilities lives they never thought possible with advancements such as prosthesis and advanced types of therapy and new approaches to rehabilitation. Of course, knowledge and advancements can be abused when in the wrong hands, as history has shown us time and time again. However my greatest concern is when we have come so far that ethical boundaries are blurred. The idea of engineering a microbe to produce oil sounds enticing, but what about when we get even more advanced? We have already cloned several types of animals. What if we could clone people? There was a scary movie I recall where everyone had a clone and their clones were harvested for organ donation. It isn't that crazy or far fetched! The idea of how we chose to apply our medical advancements and what we deem ethical in the future is what I find most worrisome.
    -Jess Safer

  6. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. With the ever-expanding knowledge of biology and genetics, we equip ourselves with a greater understanding of what makes us US. This advance in our understanding will no doubt lead to great advances in the world of healthcare. One wonders, however, just how far the line is from healthcare to warfare. If we know for certain what a general human's strengths and weaknesses are, what's to stop a sort of terrorist group with great resources from exploiting that knowledge and harming lots of people?

    The advancements we make must be regulated, or at least looked after. Lets look at the wonderful advancement of antibiotics. These medicines help many people get over hard-to-fight bugs every year. In lieu of these medications have sprung super-bugs that are resistant to antibiotics. We've just put people in jeopardy, and more and more people get sick every year with drug-resistant strains of nasty bugs. We've got to be careful not to let this same situation happen with new advancements in biology and genetics. Yes, the advancements are great and can/will help many, many people. With these new advancements will come previously unheard of risks, and we've got to be prepared to deal with those as they arise.

  7. Even with all of the advancements we have made in the past decade or so in the fields of genome sequencing and synthetic biology, I get the feeling that scientists still have barely scratched the surface. I am all for using the knowledge we have gained to attempt to better the human race in terms of eliminating diseases and whatnot, but the methods these researchers are using seem extremely dangerous to me. The human genome, for example, has been sequenced completely, but the functions of each individual gene are still a mystery, for the most part. A scientist might turn off a gene that increases a person's risk for schizophrenia, but who knows what else that particular gene is responsible for? They could have unknowingly created another serious problem in another part of that person's body.

    My point is that we do not know nearly enough about gene manipulation to do anything but fumble around in the dark, basically. As it mentions in the article, scientists could try to synthesize a microorganism for the purpose of fighting off cancer and accidentally create a new virus that is resistant to all existing vaccines. I do not think that synthetic biology is unethical, at least while it is restricted to lower level organisms like bacteria, but there are definitely high risks that come along with it. I certainly do not think that we should write off an entire scientific field just because of the possible dangers it presents, but I would definitely feel more comfortable if we knew more about the genomes that already exist before we try to go synthesize new organisms from scratch.

    - Rachel Corrado

  8. Although there is some skepticism with all of the new scientific advances being made, there are many benefits to also be considered. First, obviously the protection of such synthetic biology is necessary. Important information in the hands of the wrong people could ultimately do damage. And, although we are far away from creating a synthetic life, it is not out of the question that it may be possible in the future. This brings up ethical questions such as: would it be a clone of an already existent person? How would this man-made-being interact with our world? What are their rights? Are they equal and fair to humans? And countless other dilemmas. There needs to be reassurance that a monster (Frankenstein) isn’t created and nothing is created to harm our lives.
    On the other hand, there is always fear in things we do not fully understand. In the past, the thought of vaccines, treatments, antibiotics, chemotherapy, etc were probably exceptionally frightening; yet these advances have become part of our everyday lives and are necessity for survival. This kind of movement in science exemplifies how we need to keep working to discover new things, and now that we have the knowledge, synthetic biology could be the next big thing. The opportunities for such innovative science is endless – from curing diseases to helping preserve environment and life – all at the cost of some adventure and perseverance. There is so much more to be discovered, learned, and understood.
    Despite the skepticism and fear, if we can ultimately work efficiently and safely utilize our scientific advancements, we may be able to develop something great.

  9. I believe the debate centered around Craig Venter’s synthetic genome and synthetic life has gotten a little too far from reality. The minute the news of the synthetic genome came out there began talk of everything from creating custom mutants, as in science fiction, to terrorists synthesizing dangerous viruses or microbes. We have to be clear, however, that synthesizing a genome for a small bacteria if very different than creating a mutant. We do not have the knowledge yet, and it is unclear if we ever will, be able to construct a complex novel organism simply by putting together a genome. For example, we cannot simply create genes for things we want, say putting a toxic gas sprayer apparatus on to a fly for terrorist purposes. Genes will interact with each other in different ways, so we have to be knowledgeable about all the possible interactions and effects in order to create complex synthetic life. This prospect is a long way off. For now, I think it’s important to focus on the positive prospects of synthetic microbe genomes, especially for creating human hormones for hormone replacement therapies. Obviously, we can imagine the possibility of dangerous viruses being created, possibly accidently, but we should be cautious to implement the proper regulations and monitoring of who is building what genome where. If the regulation and monitoring is proper, I believe the possibilities are endless of how we can utilize synthetic genomes for good reasons and limit the dangerous possibilities.