By Gregory E. Kaebnick

Genetically modified organisms have sprouted a new head. Well, sort of. The field dubbed "synthetic biology"-hailed by some as the biggest development in science and technology since the emergence of modern chemistry, and as the biggest development in the world economy since the industrial revolution-can also be seen as merely a new and improved version of the kind of genetic engineering that's already been around for a few decades. According to this deflationary view, synthetic biology differs from older genetic engineering merely in that it employs better tools, more automation, and more information about the biological systems under study. It is "jet-powered genetic engineering," as one person in the field has put it to me.

The more grandiose view holds that synthetic biology is so much better, faster, and stronger than its predecessors that it can assume a new identity. It can bring to biology the principles of engineering: biological systems and subsystems can now be simplified, modularized, standardized, characterized, documented, and made openly accessible, allowing people to assemble and reassemble them in new ways without having to know very much about the underlying biology. According to this view, "genetic engineering" was only a metaphor in the 1990s, and not a very good one. In actuality, what we misleadingly call genetic engineering depended on trial and error, arcane scientific insight, and considerable dumb luck. Today, real genetic engineering is a possibility. Building new biological systems could be like building things out of Lego bricks.

This little bit of background provides a starting point for evaluating the field and thinking about its social implications. Let's start with the most abstract and in some ways the most confounding concern: does synthetic biology change the human relationship to nature in morally undesirable ways? Some believe that opposition to genetically modified organisms, even when articulated in terms of concerns about risks and benefits, is grounded in a concern that applying this technology to crops and livestock was just a bridge too far: it brought human control over nature to a level that was morally troubling even before risks and benefits were considered. Moreover, it brought that change to the farm, the garden, and the food supply, aspects of human culture where (at least for some) the relationship to nature is particularly important.

Of course, exactly how to understand this concern-and therefore how to understand its implications for synthetic biology-is contested. Interestingly enough, when this topic is on the table, those who see synthetic biology as new and exciting tend to want to downplay its newness. They want to argue, in fact, that everything is on a continuum with traditional breeding-that breeding is itself a kind of genetic engineering.

My own inclination is to defend the distinctions but then set them more or less to one side. As the science journalist Michael Pollan has beautifully argued in a series of books, breeding makes use of the basic structure of evolution-direct descent with modification followed by natural selection. Humans just do the selecting. The new biotechnologies make human intervention more complete and intrusive. Very crudely: with traditional genetic engineering, naturally occurring modification (which is just genetic replication with errors, of course) is supplanted by human modification; with synthetic biology, the capacity to write an entire genome means that not only naturally occurring modification but also direct descent is no longer necessary.

So the new technologies look different to me. But does the difference make a moral difference? I share a deep concern about the human relationship to nature, but I have come to suspect that this way of arguing against synthetic biology (and traditional genetic engineering) makes too much of the gene and of the principles of evolution. Why give them such moral weight? Why draw the line against human intervention exactly here? If a biologist managed to synthesize the entire genome of some existing, naturally occurring organism, would the organism really be troubling just because the genes were strung together in a lab?

There are some additional reasons for not getting too upset about synthetic biology-or at least, about many of its possible uses. First, another of the ways in which synthetic biology is different from much traditional genetic engineering is that it's about microbes, not crops and cows; it goes on in the laboratory and maybe someday the factory, not the farm and the garden; and it has more to do with medicines and fuels than with food. (I am fudging somewhere here; some possible agricultural applications are discussed.) Second, if it is mostly contained in the lab or factory, the consequences for the environment might be minimal. The paradigm cases of morally troubling human intervention into nature involve damage-the extinction of species, the disappearance of ecosystems, the development of wildernesses. The fact is, if synthetic biology turns out to be successful at all, then it might even be environmentally quite beneficial. One project now in development is the creation of algae to produce fuel (hence "oilgae") while simultaneously absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide; the environmental costs of producing and transporting the fuel could be environmentally sounder (it would not have to be pumped out of the ground and then floated and piped from distant rigs), wars motivated by competing national interests in oil-rich places would be unnecessary, and the absorption of carbon dioxide might even help offset the environ- mental costs of eventually burning the fuel.

If this is right, then the next question is whether the organisms actually will really be contained and environmentally harmless. Any careful answer must be modest and provisional; we do not yet know. Certainly there are reasons to be concerned. I once heard a biologist say that he is extremely enthusiastic about synthetic biology; the only thing that worries him is the possibility of catastrophe.

There are two general sorts of concerns one might have in mind. One is about biosecurity. In 2002, a scientist at SUNY - Stony Brook employed the techniques of synthetic biology en route to recreating the polio virus. In 2005, the 1918 Spanish influenza virus was recreated. Eventually, we will probably be able to progress-if "progress" it is-from viral to bacterial pathogens, such as smallpox. Next, we might be able to improve on the base designs to make pathogens more virulent. Some work in Australia on mousepox has sug- gested design tweaks that might help smallpox overcome the immune system, for example. And then we might get even more creative. In theory, perhaps entirely novel pathogens could be created. And all of these steps could be undertaken with other targets in mind-agricultural, for example, or environmental.

That at least some of these threats are theoretically plausible is well established. The likelihood of their actually happening is harder to assess. Arguably, terrorists have better ways of attacking their enemies than with bioweapons, which are still comparatively hard to make and very hard to control. Once released, such live ammunition could turn on everybody.

Another concern is about biosafety. If biosecurity leads to worries about bioterror, biosafety has to do with "bioerror." The prospect is that synthesized microbes could escape from the laboratory or the factory and then turn out in their new environment to have properties different from what was intended and predicted-or perhaps mutate to acquire them or hybridize with wild type strains. If they became established in the wild, they might pose a threat to public health, or to agriculture, or to the environment.

The likelihood that lab and industrial accidents will happen is surely very high; just as information wants to be free, nature wants out of confinement, and since it is the nature of humans to make mistakes from time to time, a way out seems likely to be available. With biosafety, it is the theoretic plausibility of the threat that is harder to assess. Synthetic organisms would be designed to invest their energy in producing jet fuel or medicine rather than to advancing their own interests, they would be designed to do it in a very specialized setting that caters to their needs, and they might be greatly simplified, stripped- down organisms that lack tools helpful for survival in adverse circumstances and generally lack the genetic complexity and therefore adaptability necessary to deal with changing circumstances. They might simply be too weak to hold their own in the wild. Finally, synthetic biologists assure us, they can be designed so as to be flatly incapable of surviving in the wild.

The possibility that synthetic biology could be a kind of engineering rather than an esoteric science is relevant for assessing the biosecurity and biosafety risks. If building synthetic organisms could be analogous to building things with Lego bricks, then the field would not be restricted to a smattering of well-funded, high-profile laboratories around the world. It could be dramatically democratized. It might turn out that important and even innovative work could be done by relatively inexperienced people. This is an exciting prospect to those who promote the engineering orientation, since it could give the field tremendous impetus. On the other hand, it could also make the field very difficult to monitor and regulate. Small-scale and underground labs could flourish, and the threats concerning biosecurity and biosafety would be more serious. The scenario is of a computer hacker, but with real viruses instead of software ones.

The challenge is to figure out how to get in front of these developments. As David Rejeski, director of the Science, Technology, and Innovation Program at Woodrow Wilson, observed in a recent essay, the environmental movement missed the first Industrial Revolution, but this time around it could help guide change, rather than just trying to clean up afterwards. The promise of synthetic biology is too great to stop the field in its tracks (supposing that possible), but the risks are too great to leave it alone.


Gregory E. Kaebnick ,Ph.D., is a Research Scholar and Director of the Editorial Department at the Hastings Institute. He is also editor of the Hastings Center Report

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