Genomics

Who's Afraid of Synthetic Biology?

Don't let fears about frankenmicrobes halt promising research.

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Better medicines, carbon neutral fuels, cheaper food, and a cleaner environment—who could be against that? Well, quite a few people, as it turns out.

Last week, a research team led by private human genome sequencer J. Craig Venter announced that they had created the world's first synthetic self-replicating bacteria. Among other things, synthetic biologists are aiming to create a set of standardized biological parts that can be mixed and matched the way off-the-shelf microchips, hard drives, and screens can be combined to create a computer. The goal is to produce novel organisms that excrete biofuels, clean up toxic spills, strip clogged arteries of cholesterol, rapidly produce vaccines, grow more photosynthetically efficient crops, and manufacture eco-friendly plastics. In an early success, UC Berkeley biologist Jay Keasling used synthetic biology techniques to engineer micro-organisms to produce at much lower cost the anti-malaria drug artemisinin in 2004.

Eventually, bioengineers will no longer be limited to just moving around and tweaking genes discovered in nature, but instead would develop never-before-seen genes. "With the tools of synthetic biology, we don't have to just accept what Nature has given us," Keasling often says.

But nowadays, every technological breakthrough is accompanied with ethical handwringing and dire warnings about unintended consequences, and synthetic biology is no exception. A Canadian anti-technology outfit, the ETC Group, is calling for a global moratorium on synthetic biology. "This is the quintessential Pandora's box moment—like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep," ETC Group's Jim Thomas warns. "We will all have to deal with the fall-out from this alarming experiment." The Daily Telegraph quotes an even more hyperbolic response from David King, head of the Human Genetics Alert group in the United Kingdom, who said, "What is really dangerous is these scientists' ambitions for total and unrestrained control over nature, which many people describe as 'playing God.'"

In addition, a subcommittee of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has forwarded language to the next conference of the parties meeting in October urging that the world's governments apply "the precautionary approach on field releases of synthetic life, cells or genomes into the environment." (Happily, the United States has never ratified the convention.) The precautionary approach basically means no new activity can go forward until it's proven to be safe. The problem is that determining whether something is safe usually involves a process of trial and error, and there are no trials without errors.

So what fears motivate the call for a global moratorium? There are basically three: bioterrorism, lab accidents, and environmental release of synthetic organisms.

Bioterrorists might create and release pathogenic organisms to cause diseases in humans, animals, or crops. While the creation of some kind of super-pathogen using synthetic biology might be possible in the future, there are plenty of frightening pathogens available right now without going to the trouble of building new ones. And researchers have already proven their facility at resurrecting scourges from the past, such as smallpox, polio, and the Spanish flu. In fact, legitimate researchers have already reconstructed polio and flu viruses in a lab setting.

Leaving aside bioterror, there's still the threat posed by biohacking. Do-it-yourself researchers working out of their garages might create—either intentionally or inadvertently—the biological equivalent of malign computer viruses. Or what about governments eager to manufacture new biological weapons? After all, the Venter team used digitized genome sequence information and off-the-shelf chemicals to design, synthesize, and assemble a genome from one bacterial species stretching more than 1 million DNA base-pairs encoding about 850 genes. They inserted this man-made genome into the hollowed out cell of another species whose original genome had been completely removed. The synthesized genome jumpstarted the cored-out cell, turning it into a different species of bacteria. Anyone could do it, right? Keeping governments out of the business of building new biological weapons will be difficult, but strengthening the verification provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention would greatly reduce this anxiety.

Lab accidents do occur. Last year, a researcher at a German lab pricked herself with a needle contaminated with the deadly Ebola virus and an Austrian lab mixed up samples of bird flu virus with seasonal flu samples. Picking the appropriate level of lab containment and rigorously training lab personnel is essential, but if preventing all accidents were mandatory, all research would come to a halt.

No one is talking about releasing synthetic organisms into the environment at this stage. The Venter team "watermarked" the synthetic cells with unique genetic sequences to distinguish them from natural cells so that they could keep track of them. And before getting too worked up over the potential dangers of escaped synthetic microbes, keep in mind that humans have been moving thousands of exotic microbial species across continents and oceans for centuries. Surely, some have had deleterious effects, but the world has not come to an end.

In any case, many lab-crafted creatures would likely be obliterated by competing organisms honed by billions of years of evolution in the wild. In the future, synthetic organisms could be equipped with suicide genes where their survival is dependent on some chemical that is only available in the lab. For example, if synthetic microbes are created to treat some kind of pollution, they would be supplied with the chemical onsite and once their work was done, they would be starved of it. In addition, future synthetic lifeforms should be "watermarked" like Venter's new microbe so that their creators can be held accountable for them.

The good news is that a robust and expansive commercial and nonprofit biotech research establishment will enable the growth of a resilient and responsive public health infrastructure. It will give us the capability to quickly detect and contain outbreaks by rapidly devising and deploying new diagnostics, drugs, vaccines, and other treatments. Thus will a dynamic biotech industry protect us against bioterrorism, biohacking, accidents, and the unintended consequences of deliberate releases of both natural and synthetic microbes.

The German Ebola virus incident gives us a glimpse of this rapid response future. The researcher who pricked her finger with the contaminated needle was likely saved by being injected with an experimental vaccine 40 hours after she was exposed to the virus. Contrary to the claims of the anti-technology alarmists, the surest way to greater safety in the dawning era of synthetic biology is not prohibition, but proliferation.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. The notion that M. Laboratorium is “promising research” is totally rediculous. E Coli works just fine.

  2. Remember the human cloning outrage during the Bush administration? Whatever happened with that…

  3. I think we should ban DNA. It’s altogether too dangerous.

  4. Mr. Bailey, while I know that corporations are necessary for a functioning economy do you really expect us to blindly trust them to be working in our best interest? You took the same position with Frankenfoods…

    1. Dan T, while we know intelligence is distributed on the curve, do you have to post here to demonstrate the low end?

      1. Someone has to, least we forget they exist.

    2. At least i don’t have to do business with a corporation, and if it hurts me I can sue it.

      I think that is better than trusting government agents who are paid off by corporations and can use force against me and against whom I have no legal recourse.

    3. Mr. Bailey, while I know that corporations are necessary for a functioning economy do you really expect us to blindly trust them to be working in our best interest? You took the same position with Frankenfoods…

      It’s okay – these corporations are under the supervision of the STATE!!!

      That means you can trust them. Also, many times they are funded by the state, and regulated by the state, and sometimes these scientists are directly and officially part of the state. All things that should sooth your nerves, for as we all know, once the state intervenes then all is well.

      I’m kind of surprised to see someone such as yourself expressing any sort of doubt at the powers of the state at a statist magazine. Shouldn’t you be posting at some sort of “free market” rag such as “The Economist” or “Foreign Policy”?

      Look here – Mr. Ron Bailey, fearless investigative journalist, says this:

      “The good news is that a robust and expansive commercial and nonprofit biotech research establishment will enable the growth of a resilient and responsive public health infrastructure.

      See? This will help make a “resilient and responsive” state infrastructure. After all, “public health” is a measure of the health of the state – so relax, the state is doing fine and you have nothing to worry about. State minds and state markets are good to go and they are only gonna get better in time!

  5. Bailey, you cad.

    Considering that alt text I believe you are now fucking with us.

  6. As long as a corporation is doing it instead of the government, I’m on board!

    1. Keep those grubby nonprofit corporations off my backs. I’ll take sludge over them!

  7. “This is the quintessential Pandora’s box moment?like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep,”

    Well they’re half correct. I can’t get from my house to the bus stop without all of the homeless dolly sheep getting in my way.

  8. Dan T. is the Zero Patient infected by the synthetic Zombie Troll bacteria!

  9. Mr. Bailey, while I know that corporations scientists are necessary for a functioning economy the advancement of human well-being do you really expect us to blindly trust them to be working in our best interest?

  10. Mr. Bailey, while I know that corporations scientists governments are necessary for a functioning economy the advancement of human well-being societal stability do you really expect us to blindly trust them to be working in our best interest?

    1. Hmm.. . .seems that each facet of the modern world relies on a well functioning group of specialists. Wherein the economy requires corporations, the advancement of humanity requires science, and societal stability requires governments. I feel pretty good about that.

  11. In the UK the bbc led their Venter reporting with the headline “Call for ban on whatever-they-called-it.”

    Fuck the BBC. The only people calling for a ban where a small group of luddites no one gives a shit about.

    I. Hate. The. BBC.

    1. I would trade you for that – we’re still at the part of the curve where we’re arguing about evolution.

  12. I think that when the welfare state was invented, we should have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. After all, governments shouldn’t “play God” with the economy.

    1. I think that when the welfare state was invented, we should have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. After all, governments shouldn’t “play God” with the economy.

      If only there wasn’t a perfect unmarred record of amazing awesome control of the economy (and education, and everything else) by the state. That’s why we can trust the state to play God with microorganisms, our food, etc.

    2. I think that when the welfare state was invented, we should have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. After all, governments shouldn’t “play God” with the economy.

      If only there wasn’t a perfect unmarred record of amazing awesome control of the economy (and education, and everything else) by the state. That’s why we can trust the state to play God with microorganisms, our food, etc.

    3. I think that when the welfare state was invented, we should have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. After all, governments shouldn’t “play God” with the economy.

      If only there wasn’t a perfect unmarred record of amazing awesome control of the economy (and education, and everything else) by the state. That’s why we can trust the state to play God with microorganisms, our food, etc.

      1. Patriot Henry|5.26.10 @ 11:53PM|#
        “That’s why we can trust the state to play God with microorganisms, our food, etc.”

        Uh, care to put this into English?
        Venter is many things, but the government, he ain’t.
        Or are you just tin-foil-lidding bio-engineering?
        I’ll be the latter…..

        1. Or to put it another way, the state is playing “nature”. It’s replacing the natural order of things through science and technology and bureaucracy.

          Venter is many things, but the government, he ain’t.

          I haven’t seen any evidence Venter nor his research is a problem, but I have re: Reason.

    4. I think that when the welfare state was invented, we should have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. After all, governments shouldn’t “play God” with the economy.

      If only there wasn’t a perfect unmarred record of amazing awesome control of the economy (and education, and everything else) by the state. That’s why we can trust the state to play God with microorganisms, our food, etc.

    5. I think that when the welfare state was invented, we should have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. After all, governments shouldn’t “play God” with the economy.

      If only there wasn’t a perfect unmarred record of amazing awesome control of the economy (and education, and everything else) by the state. That’s why we can trust the state to play God with microorganisms, our food, etc.

  13. It’s time for “The Stand”

    Actually I’m excited, I imagine the next 50 years of technology advances will put the last 50 to shame. Still just in case, maybe I should get that cabin in the woods.

    1. Fuck that! And miss the next generations of the video games??

      1. I think I can still get internet and TV out there.

  14. Can we adapt the the precautionary approach to government and that government spending is effective?

  15. “?the biological equivalent of malign computer viruses.”

    Let’s see, what is the biological equivalent of a computer virus? I don’t know, maybe…a VIRUS?

    Not even really a nitpick, it just made me laugh.

  16. Amazing leap forward by J. Craig Venter.

    It’s no surprise some are panicked, would anyone really expect any less. There’s always some risk with any new technology, with this one real potential for unintended harm is negligible, the potential benefits are enormous.

    There is really nothing new going on with what is being done, it’s the method, the technique that is revolutionary.

    As for terrorists, that would depend on who the terrorists are, or terrorist is. The vast majority of those involved in these activities today don’t seem to be the brightest people around. There was a time I was a little concerned they’d utilize readily available common technologies, which I will decline from identifying before the world on this public forum for obvious reasons, that could allow them to transform themselves into a much more serious threat. The fact that they overlook these comparatively non-complex tools and methods that could give them big advantages causes me to suspect the common terrorist will not be assembling synthetic biological material anytime soon.

    Additionally, creating a super pathogen would be even more complex than producing an atomic weapon. Given the current state of affairs it’s unlikely malevolent lab personnel could get away with it unnoticed.

    We really shouldn’t pass on great prospects of huge advancements that promise tremendous benefits over some small potential risks. There will always be risk, living itself is very risky, it doesn’t matter how careful we are in the end something will kill each and everyone of us.

    Those involved need to be allowed to continue pushing forward with their valuable research. A great kudos to them.

    1. This is important:

      creating a super pathogen would be even more complex than producing an atomic weapon

      Designing an organism to both behave generally as it always does (e.g. be very infectious and robust) and do something unusual (be deadly) is very very tricky science. There have been very few successes in that way, even by the smartest people working with enormous resources.

      The day may come when ignorant cave-dwellers in Waziristan can assemble a vicious plague in their caves — but I suspect it will only be because the recipe is so widely known and standardized that any teenager can download it off Wikipedia and cook it up with second-hand equipment scrounged from craigslist.

      But in that case the defenses will also be very well known. We’re talking about the equivalent of script kiddies. They are, to be sure, God-damned annoying, but not deadly to professionals, or even well-informed professionals.

      No, it will not be possible to participate in the future without using your brain.

  17. Jeez, why not just ban intelligence completely? Harrison Bergeron is becoming a reality, thanks to Dan T. and his moron brethren.

  18. I generally agree, Ron. This research should go forward full steam ahead, and it poses no particularly unusual risks compared to many other things we are doing. Therefore, it needs no unique regulatory paradigm, but can be handled by systems similar to ones we already have in place for nuclear or medical research. Of course, since you didn’t seem to mention any regulation or oversight at all, I presume that this means you think it should be completely unregulated.

    1. Chad|5.25.10 @ 9:00PM|#
      “…Of course, since you didn’t seem to mention any regulation or oversight at all, I presume that this means you think it should be completely unregulated.”

      Of course since you didn’t make any pertinent comments, I presume you think just any government regulation is just as good as any other and that so long as it’s “regulated” in some way or other, why that’ll do just fine.

  19. Which is more like playing God? Scientists create synthetic cells.
    OR
    Activists groups by force wanting to control the thoughts and actions of every person on the planet (global moratorium)… ?

    1. Both

    2. Of course, if BigBadBiotech Inc. skimps on safety to save a few bucks and accidentally releases a virus which wipes out 90% of earths population, the survivors could always sue for damages in court. Right?

      I have this sinking feeling that the surviving libertarians will just say “Oh well! Buyer beware!” and defend BigBadBiotech Inc. as another victim of those mean liberals and judicial activists.

      1. I have this sinking feeling that your brains leaked out some time in the past.
        And that you’d defend any and all government action as just ducky.

        1. Ha ha. So when in comes out that the oil spill in the gulf was caused by BP cutting corners to save money, will you still tell me that I am fundamentally wrong with my assertion that corporations view people as expendable?

          1. Ha, ha. So when it comes to a Chernobyl, you’ll tell me the government is helping me?
            Poor little Hate Potion Number Nine, still looking for a nanny to look out for you.
            BTW, I’ll still tell you that your brains have leaked out; please check under your chair.

            1. Good one straman…

      2. Accidentally? Would they have accidentally designed this fiendishly efficient killing machine, doing Mother Nature and her piddling 3 billion years of evolution one better when Peter Parker clumsily knocked a flask of guanine into the bubbling tank and the uniquely new and deadly genome just spontaneously assembled?

        Or would they have been contracted by the government (the only conceivable user of deadly killing viruses to build a superbioweapon and then accidentally left all the airlocks open so the stuff blew out the window?

        You know, I picked up a piece of granite rock the other day on a hike, but then I realized that the green coloring meant it probably contained uranium, so I put it down in case it bumped against the aluminum poles in my tent and accidentally created a nuclear bomb. Whew! Dodged a bullet there, I guess.

      3. Not only that, but I think we probably need some stiff government regulation of Toyota’s new hybrid car programs.

        I mean, what if they accidentally constructed some evil sentient hybrid robot-car that went and killed 90% of the worlds population? Brrr!

  20. But nowadays, every technological breakthrough is accompanied with ethical handwringing and dire warnings about unintended consequences

    But nowadays? That is how it’s always been back to the Greeks.

    The concern right now is we have a President even more anti first amendment than our last one, a congress itching to nationalize every major company, and a political class that no longer values competition and nimbleness but huge coprorations that are too big to fail.

    It’s not the churches that will kill science and technological progress. It never was.

    1. Stemcells.

      1. Nope.
        I’m sure they would have if they could, but there remains enough of a wall between church and state that the best they could do is stop federal funding on new strains.
        No such limitation on the state.

  21. Wounderful, here comes the rise of zombie nation…

  22. We should play god every chance we get, especially since there is no real one.

    1. I think it was the Whole Earth Catalogue that had a quote along the lines of:
      ‘We are as gods; we may as well try to act like it’

  23. What the Luddites don’t think about is that every microbe – nay every species – on this planet continually changes its DNA in a constant pattern of evolution, each attempting to get a leg-up on everybody else. Our immune systems handle it just fine.

    1. What the luddites also miss is that there are few things we eat which *haven’t* been ‘genetically-modified’. They’ve just been ‘genetically-modified’ by the crude methods of the past, those methods being far more prone to error.

  24. I sure hope the government doesn’t try to regulate us too 🙁

  25. “…humans have been moving thousands of exotic microbial species across continents and oceans for centuries. Surely, some have had deleterious effects, but the world has not come to an end.”

    It troubles me that Mr. Bailey links to his own writing on American Chestnuts instead of, say, some piece on American Indians, whose world did pretty much come to an end after exotic microbes crossed an ocean.

  26. “No one is talking about releasing synthetic organisms into the environment at this stage.”

    “No one ever talks about it. They just do it!” -Holocaust survivor and human magnet Eric Lensherr, on playing God.

  27. This question suffers from a false dichotomy: Either you’re for pressing forward or against. What we need is not a ‘yea!’ or a ‘boo!’ but concrete plans for how advances will be regulated, which strategies we’ll use to thwart misuses of technology, how we’ll test new technologies for safety, etc. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not prove that it won’t do so in the future. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not mean that it could not have been implemented with better precautions, saving countless lives and species. That Bailey’s opponents have not been willing to give the issue more nuanced and careful thought does not excuse Bailey’s shallow treatment. This problem matters; we need real thinking.

  28. We have to accept the advancement of technology and of course this synthetic biology will help us in finding new alternates for certain diseases. A lot of research work is required in this field and we have to allocate funds for this purpose. Thanks

  29. We should play god every chance we get, especially since there is no real one.

  30. The concern right now is we have a President even more anti first amendment than our last one.

  31. I think it was the Whole Earth Catalogue that had a quote along the lines.

  32. They’ve just been ‘genetically-modified’ by the crude methods of the past, those methods being far more prone to error.

  33. I think you just do it.

  34. The concern right now is we have a President even more anti first amendment than our last one.

  35. Here comes the rise of zombie nation…

  36. d have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. After all, governments shouldn’t “play God” with the economy.

    If only there wasn’t a perfect unmarred record of amazing awesome control of the economy (and education, and everything else) by the state. That’s why we can trust the state to oakley sunglasses
    oakley sunglass

  37. I need some time to think about this!

  38. Gotta love engineers 😉

  39. The faculty of reason, rationality, or the faculty of discursive reason

  40. The reasoning for the black box is to document what exactly happens in a crash.

  41. I agree with most of what you wrote down below

  42. Reason is committed to a pluralistic approach, promoting …

  43. do you wanna be my leader ?

  44. si on ne m?lange pas les torchons et les serviettes

  45. Join us now to get access to all our features.

  46. Once registered and logged in, you will be able to create topics

  47. You don’t need to add your email if you are already subscribed by email to Reason

  48. Something like this may be what you’re looking for

  49. get your own private messenger, and so, so much more

  50. It’s also quick and totally free

  51. so what are you waiting for?

  52. There are lots of links on reason

  53. We’ll test new technologies for safety, etc. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not prove that it won’t do so in the future.

  54. I think that is a technology has not destroyed the world so far does not prove that it won’t do so in the future. Thanks

  55. This question suffers from a false dichotomy: Either you’re for pressing forward or against. What we need is not a ‘yea!’ or a ‘boo!’ but concrete plans for how advances will be regulated, which strategies we’ll use to thwart misuses of technology, how we’ll test new technologies for safety, etc. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not prove that it won’t do so in the future. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not mean that it could not have been implemented with better precautions, saving countless lives and species. That Bailey’s opponents have not been willing to give the issue more nuanced and careful thought does not excuse Bailey’s shallow treatment. This problem matters; we need real thinking.

  56. Stem cell research is over rated.

  57. The faculty of reason, rationality, or the faculty of discursive reason.

  58. That Bailey’s opponents have not been willing to give the issue more nuanced and careful thought does not excuse Bailey’s shallow treatment. This problem matters; we need real thinking.

  59. I think that when the welfare state was invented, we should have declared a “moratorium” in order to “fully examine the effects”. livescore

  60. I haven’t seen any evidence Venter nor his research is a problem, but I have re: Reason.

  61. A political class that no longer values competition and nimbleness but huge coprorations that are too big to fail. sbobet http://sbobet.sbo-win.com

  62. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not mean that it could not have been implemented better than. http://sbobet.sbo-win.com

  63. What about bio-technology in the form of “Ocular Eye Transmitters” that are planted without your consent when having routeen surgery let’s say on your knee. Putting this type of “nanotechnology” in someone allows for others to not only see though your eyes but also read your thoughts as well as transferance of their ideas posing as yours. This is a very disturbing senerio of role play. American people need to be aware that this does and has happened. Transhumanism can be a”GAME” of the Devil……

  64. I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thanks

  65. I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thanks

  66. This is a very disturbing senerio of role play. American people need to be aware that this does and has happened.

  67. This is a very disturbing senerio of role play. American people need to be aware that this does and has happened.

  68. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not prove that it won’t do so in the future. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not mean that it could not have been implemented with better precautions.

  69. That technology has not destroyed the world so far does not mean that it could not have been implemented with better precautions.

  70. The good news is that a robust and expansive commercial and nonprofit biotech research establishment will enable the growth of a resilient and responsive public health infrastructure.

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