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Synthetic Biology Grows Up

Announcement of New Organism Paves Way to for Smart Governance

Portion of diagram illustrating the synthetic genome of Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. SOURCE: Science Portion of diagram illustrating the synthetic genome of Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0.

Video: Major Advances in Synthetic Biology

Jonathan Moreno

Jonathan Moreno explains what synthetic biology is, what the J. Craig Venter Institute announcement means, and how to ensure that synthetic biology benefits Americans.

Today’s announcement from the J. Craig Venter Institute that the group has engineered a synthetic cell is cause for celebration. Made-to-order life forms may someday be used for a variety of tasks that could significantly improve the quality of human life. The tools of synthetic biology, among many other benefits, will allow scientists to:

  • advance our understanding of basic biology
  • create new vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools
  • repair diseased tissues
  • engineer new carbon-neutral energy sources
  • provide countermeasures for polluting environmental toxins

Synthetic biology, or “synbio,” is a relatively new laboratory discipline that involves creating or altering new life forms. The basic tools of synbio are standard biological parts—sets of genes and chromosomes with known and specific functions created in modern biology labs—that can be assembled to program cells and control an organism’s functions. The process resembles computer programming in that scientists assemble blocks of genetic “code” into instructions for tiny cellular machines.

“Biobricks” are standard, interoperable pieces of DNA for genetic engineering. They are already widely available from commercial websites and the relevant skills for creating them are known to any reasonably competent biology graduate student. Taking advantage of rapid advances in gene sequencing, even college students are learning the techniques. Engineers use biological parts like genes, proteins, and portions of chromosomes to build new microscopic organisms that behave in certain ways. Synthetic biology is only in its infancy, and it will likely be combined with such other emerging fields as nanotechnology to create entities that blend the mechanical and biological.

In her previous article for Science Progress, the technology observer Denise Caruso recommended four priorities for the oversight and governance of synthetic biology. These should be the template for progressive policymaking:

  • Improve research and reporting on the current regulatory situation for synthetic biology across agencies and sectors
  • Conduct a comprehensive critique of the synthetic biology reports that have been published so far, and an assessment of their impact on decision makers
  • Use (and challenging the assumptions of) the data and scenarios in the above-mentioned reports; conduct a comprehensive risk characterization of synthetic biology
  • Convene cross-sector stakeholder working groups on elements in the assessment that were deemed most important to address.

Synbio nonetheless raises a wide variety of issues that will need to be addressed through a combination of monitoring and regulatory measures, without inappropriate restrictions that block innovation. These issues include:

  • Potential environmental hazards due to the accidental release of man-made organisms that may turn out to be harmful and difficult to eradicate
  • The possibility that treatment-resistant bacteria or viruses could be synthesized for use in biological warfare
  • The risky combination of portions of genes from a human source with those from a non-human source, whether biological or non-biological

For other reasons individuals across the social and political spectrum may also find synbio intrinsically objectionable. The matters of potential cultural concern are far more complex than those faced in the stem cell debate. Many will not view the creation of new life forms capable of performing specific tasks as morally neutral. Political realignment around “naturalness” is a phenomenon that has become familiar in other areas, such as human cloning and genetically modified organisms. A similar reaction could apply to synthetic biology as its implications enter popular awareness.

These worries need to be addressed with seriousness and candor. Scientists and investors rightly complain that inappropriate regulation can impair the development of a new field, yet the rise and fall of public interest in and support of gene therapy should serve as a cautionary tale. Experience has shown that a single adverse event can have an enormous impact on public perception. Ever since the French Enlightenment, trust in scientists has been a crucial component of public support of scientific and technological innovation.

Governance of biotechnology has several elements. Self-policing by the scientific community is necessary but not sufficient. In this field there is an irreplaceable role for smart government, but authority for oversight and regulation of synbio in the United States is currently at best a partial patchwork. The National Institutes of Health require labs receiving its funds to comply with Recombinant DNA guidelines; the Food and Drug Administration would have to approve a drug created by synbio; and the Department of Agriculture might be responsible for avoiding the environmental release of synthetic organisms. But current regulations may not address unique risks posed by the technology.

Nor will merely domestic arrangements be enough. The context for the scientific and commercial interest in the field is a research and development system that has in the past decade or so become globalized to an unprecedented degree. International cooperation and continued scrutiny at many levels of government will be required, as technology will almost certainly rush ahead of current conventions. Researchers and their supporters should also seek innovative approaches for verifying the character and safety of new life forms created through synbio.

Over the long term, the social and scientific impetus behind synthetic biology will overcome political posturing. The greater danger is that through overreaction and misunderstanding we could miss an early opportunity to engage in careful assessment of the research and the development of improved or new regulatory models to avoid harms and maximize the potential benefits of synbio for the common good.  The industrial platforms that this technology is helping to develop will be key components of prospering national economies and national security systems over the next fifty years. America can and must be among the leading innovators.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics and Professor of Medical Ethics and of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Editor-in-Chief of Science Progress.

More on synthetic biology from Science Progress:

Ribosomes Rising: Synthetic Biology Accelerates
By Jonathan D. Moreno

Synthetic Biology: An Overview and Recommendations for Anticipating and Addressing Emerging Risks
By Denise Caruso

All Together Now: As Emerging Technologies Converge, So Should Ethical Discussions

Interview: David Deamer Explains Synthetic Life: Unpacking the Latest Advance in Biology
Interview by Andrew Plemmons Pratt

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