Who's Afraid of Synthetic Biology?

Don't let fears about frankenmicrobes halt promising research.


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.