Humming with Mystery: Synthetic Biology & Playing God

Article excerpt

When President Barack Obama announced an executive order creating a Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, he said, "As our nation invests in science and innovation and pursues advances in biomedical research and health care, it's imperative that we do so in a responsible manner."

It was not clear at the time which new advances in biomedical research the commision might take up, but it was not long before developments in the field of synthetic biology, specifically the May 2010 announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world's first self-replicating bacterial cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome, settled the matter. Recognizing the significance of this achievement--what the Venter Institute described as the ability "to rewrite the software of life"--Obama asked the commission to report to him within six months.

Though synthetic biology has not gotten much attention in the popular press, it is arguably the next big thing in scientific research and innovation. More akin to engineering than biology, it comprises various new technologies that may be used to redesign existing biological systems or even to design entirely new living organisms. As Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas wrote five years ago in the journal the New Atlantis, synthetic biology possesses seemingly limitless application. "Among the potential applications of this new field," they pointed out, "is the creation of bioengineered microorganisms (and possibly other life forms) that can produce pharmaceuticals, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells, and generate hydrogen for the postpetroleum economy." Quite a wish list for anyone interested in human progress.

Scientists have proclaimed the wonders of emerging technologies before, of course, but the promise of synthetic biology threatens to overwhelm the healthy skepticism that usually greets such proclamations. To take one example, biologists at the University of California have reengineered a microorganism so that it helps produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin cheaply and efficiently. Artemisinin, a chemical derived from the sweet wormwood plant, is difficult and expensive to produce naturally. By adding new genes and engineering a new metabolic pathway in E. coli bacteria, however, synthetic biologists are now able to increase the production of a chemical precursor of artemisinin by a factor of 10,000. The likely upshot will be inexpensive large-scale production of the drug. Given that malaria kills nearly a million people every year in sub-Saharan Africa alone, it's no wonder that many are touting synthetic biology as revolutionary.

Yet if synthetic biology promises great benefits, it may also lead to great harm. In 2002, a research group at SUNY Stonybrook created a live, infectious poliovirus by using "off the shelf" (that is, commercially available) genetic material and gene-sequencing information obtainable on the Internet. Similarly, in 2005 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention synthesized the Spanish influenza virus that killed millions of people in the 1918-19 flu pandemic. As the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has noted, with ominous understatement,

  New approaches that enable genomes to be manipulated, rearranged, and
  engineered on a large scale provide the ability to generate novel
  organisms whose properties are unknown. ... The possibility that,
  during the research process, certain selective pressures might lead
  to the identification of mutants with enhanced virulence presents
  potential biosafety, biosecurity, and/or dual use concerns.

With both the promise and peril of synthetic biology in mind, President Obama's commission issued a report that made eighteen recommendations and identified five ethical principles that inform them. I want to focus on two of the five principles, those of responsible stewardship and democratic deliberation. …