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Do the benefits of synthetic biology outweigh the risks?

| November 12, 2013

In 2007, famed American scientist Craig Venter published the complete sequence of his genome in PLOS Biology. The accomplishment, built upon Venter’s work on mapping the human genome, heralded the foundation of a new way of thinking for scientists: creating synthetic life was not only possible, but it was now within reach.

Three years later, Venter and his team built the genome of a bacterium in a lab and successfully incorporated it into a cell, producing the world’s first synthetic life form. Today, synthetic biology is poised to revolutionize a number of fields, from medicine to energy production.

But, while many scientists were in awe of the possibilities unlocked by this staggering achievement, many criticized the experiment as unnatural and likened it to “playing God.” We can create life, but should we?

Most immediately, synthetic biology could yield benefits to health, the environment and numerous industries. Scientists could use synthetic biology to detect and remove environmental contaminants and create safer and cleaner air for us to breathe and water for us to drink. They could also apply synthetic biology to applications that would diagnose, monitor and respond to disease in humans and animals and develop new drugs and vaccines that would be more effective and efficient than ever before. Synthetic biology could be used to create enzymes for bolstering biofuels, as well as increase efficiency in biomanufacturing and chemical technology.

Despite these potential benefits, however, critics of synthetic biology—university ethicists, some journalists and conservative religious groups—have argued that the emerging field will create a world of Frankensteins and unnatural beings. They worry that releasing synthetic life into the environment, whether done deliberately in a potential environmental application or by accident, could have an adverse effect on our ecosystem. These technologies, they argue, could be used for bioterrorism that would do enormous amount of damage, because synthetic biology allows for the construction of microorganisms that would have incapacitating, or lethal, effects on humans.

This argument is very similar to the “unintended consequences” argument used by anti-GMO critics. Without any real evidence of likely dangers, critics conjure up fears as a way of convincing people to distrust this new technology.

Critics have also argued that the benefits of synthetic biology are not significant enough to justify the associated risks. They point to the lack of progress with anti-malarial drugs as one example. In 2006, scientists synthesized the antimalarial drug artemisinin from genetically engineered bacteria, rather than creating the drug using traditional means of extracting it from a plant source. This success story helped create excitement about the potential of synethic biology, but the hype fell short of the reality; in the ensuing years, this synthesized drug never made it to market, due largely to the fact that the technology was not yet ready for prime time.

Earlier this year, however, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi launched large-scale production of a partially synthetic version of artemisinin, thanks to the work of researchers at the University of California-Berkeley. This accomplishment could help deliver the drug to 650,000 affected people, most of whom are children who die of the disease each year.

“The production of semisynthetic artemisinin will help secure part of the world’s supply and maintain the cost of this raw material at acceptable levels for public health authorities around the world and ultimately benefit patients,” said Dr. Robert Sebbag, vice-president of Access to Medicines at Sanofi. “This is a pivotal milestone in the fight against malaria.”

This modest success story is unlikely to convince hardcore critics, however. For thousand of years, science and religion have clashed, and the notion of “playing God” seems to be the basis for objection each time. Nearly every biotechnological accomplishment—the advent of anesthesia, birth control, stem cell research and genetic engineering, to name a few—has been met with objections and charges that scientists have violated the natural order.

However, this argument ignores the great strides made by science to feed the hungry and heal the sick. Surely, the “natural order” these critics refer to includes the progress of scientists to positively impact mankind. Without scientific progress that was initially described as ‘going against nature,’  humankind wouldn’t have found cures for deadly diseases or solutions to some of our biggest problems, such as finding a cure for polio or discovering the structure of DNA. Yet, it is the religious and philosophical issues that get most of the media attention, which often detracts from the progress being made as scientists address the risks of synthetic biology.

To Venter, one of the pioneers in this field, while synthetic biology introduces risks, it also brings with it a vast potential for good:

The Janus-like nature of innovation—its responsible use and so on—was evident at the very birth of human ingenuity, when humankind first discovered how to make fire on demand. (Do I use it to burn down a rival’s settlement, or to keep warm?) Every few months, another meeting is held to discuss how powerful technology cuts both ways. It is crucial that we invest in underpinning technologies, science, education and policy in order to ensure the safe and efficient development of synthetic biology. Opportunities for public debate and discussion on this topic must be sponsored, and the lay public must engage. But it is important not to lose sight of the amazing opportunities that this research presents. Synthetic biology can help address key challenges facing the planet and its population. Research in synthetic biology may lead to new things such as programmed cells that self-assemble at the sites of disease to repair damage.

To be sure, there are numerous risks to synthetic biology, but there are also potential benefits that could positively impact the future. As the cost of DNA synthesis drops and more scientists begin experimenting with synthetic biology, scientists will be able to better manage the risks while helping to better our society. In the meantime, it is clear that the fear-based criticisms should not be used to derail the progress of synthetic biology.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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