Andreas Späth

Frankenstein biology - good or bad for us?

2014-08-04 10:16

The idea of creating life has fascinated humans for millennia, but until fairly recently, the thought of it becoming an actual reality was pretty much taboo. When Mary Shelley penned her famous novel in the early 19th century, the outcome of Dr Victor Frankenstein's tinkering with nature was, after all, an abominable monster in what remains the quintessential horror story to this day (tellingly, the subtitle of her book, The Modern Prometheus, refers to the Titan of Greek mythology who sculpted the first human out of clay).

In the last decade or so, developments in a very active area of scientific research called synthetic biology, have made the prospect of humans not just manipulating life a la genetic engineering, but actually creating it, increasingly realistic.

Rather than just cutting and pasting existing bits of genetic code from one animal or plant species into another, synthetic biology aspires to create entirely new DNA sequences from scratch which are designed to do things better, faster or completely differently than living organisms do them now.

The scientists involved treat DNA a bit like a computer programme. The aim is to rewrite life's internal operating system: design a new programme, print it out and run it in a cell which has been cleaned of its own genetic material to perform functions that may or may not be found in nature already.

Although it's still in its infancy, the potential applications of synthetic biology are far-reaching. In 2010, a team led by American celeb-scientist Craig Venter made worldwide headlines when they built the entire genome of one bacterium and inserted it into an "empty" cell of another bacterium species, creating a functioning, replicating "synthetic cell".

Researchers at MIT have transformed bacterial cells into artificial, living calculators that can do divisions, square roots and logarithms. Future projects may result in synthetic organisms that clean up environmental pollution, trap carbon, produce vaccines and medications, fabricate food, perform photosynthesis, terra-form other planets, store large amounts of information or manufacture renewable fuel out of methane and carbon dioxide.

There are several concerns however:

- Are we really smart enough to successfully dabble with life, the most complex system we know, yet are still so far from understanding completely?

- Who regulates research in synthetic biology? Can the scientific community and industry be trusted to police itself?

- Who will own the new creations, exactly who will benefit from them and who will monitor their impact on the environment when they’re released into the wild?

- Should synthetic biologists be permitted to work with the human genetic code, too, or just that of other organisms?

You may think that the potential benefits outweigh the risks and you may not agree with those who have called for a global moratorium on releases and commercial uses of synthetic bio-creations, but the fact that there are so many unanswered questions about the issue and that so many people are entirely unaware of the subject in the first place suggests that something is amiss.

I think that the scientists working in this field have a responsibility to inform the general public about what they're up to and to provide us with the information we need to make up our own minds regarding the more controversial aspects of their efforts. They have yet to do that in any effective way whatsoever and shouldn’t be surprised if they face increasing public opposition to their work.

The term "Ivory Tower" doesn’t refer to a place where academics, sheltered from society at large, labour over scientific developments that we ordinary mortals neither understand nor really care about. The real meaning of the concept refers to a praxis that allows such scientists to make decisions that may very well have profound implications for all of us without our knowledge or approval, and that’s not cool.

So here’s a challenge to all you synthetic biologists out there: step outside of your labs every once in a while and make a much, much more concerted effort to inform us about what you’re doing and what it will mean to the world we all live in.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
 
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