As scientists create the first synthetic cell, the future safety of synthetic biology will depend on sound science

by Andrew Maynard on May 26, 2010

Last week’s announcement from the J. Craig Venter Institute that scientists had created the first-ever synthetic cell was a profoundly significant point in human history, and marked a turning point in our quest to control the natural world.  But the ability to use this emerging technology wisely is already being dogged by fears that we have embarked down a dangerous and morally dubious path.

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House.  But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

The new “synthetic biology” epitomized by the Venter Institute’s work – in essence the ability to design new genetic code on computers and then “download” it into living organisms – heralds a new era of potentially transformative technology innovation.  As if to underline this, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will be hearing testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential on May 27th – just days after last week’s announcement.  But the technology also raises serious ethical and safety concerns: Is it right and proper to meddle with the fundamental basis of life?  What happens if the technology gets into the wrong hands? And what might occur when synthetic life meets the natural world?

Questions like these have challenged scientists, ethicists and decision makers for many years, and with good reason – our headlong charge into advanced genetic manipulation is taking us into uncharted and uncertain territory.  But the breakthroughs made by Craig Venter and his team place a new urgency on developing policies, ethics and research strategies in support of safe and acceptable synthetic biology.

The ethics in particular surrounding synthetic biology are far from clear; the ability to custom-design the genetic code that resides in and defines all living organisms challenges our very notions of what is right and what is acceptable.  Which is no doubt why President Obama wasted no time in charging the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the technology.

But in placing ethics so high up the agenda, my fear is that more immediate safety issues might end up being overlooked.

It’s not that safety isn’t on the radar – there is already tremendous speculation over the potential impacts of synthetic biology.  But with one or two exceptions (including work from the J. Craig Venter Institute), there seems little science behind many of these conjectures.  And actions based on speculation alone may endanger the tremendous good that could come from this rapidly emerging technology, while potentially opening the door to unintended consequences.

Rather, scientists, policy makers and developers urgently need to consider how synthetic biology might legitimately lead to people and the environment being endangered, and how this is best avoided.

What we need is a science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result.  Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.

Synthetic biology is still too young to second-guess whether artificial microbes will present new risks; whether bio-terror or bio-error will result in harmful new pathogens; or whether blinkered short-cuts will precipitate catastrophic failure. But the sheer momentum and audacity of the technology will inevitably lead to new and unusual risks emerging.

And this is precisely why the safety dialogue needs to be grounded in science now, before it becomes entrenched in speculation.

In six months’ time, the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will be presenting President Obama with its findings and recommendations on the implications of synthetic biology.  Hopefully as well as grappling with the ethics of nanotechnology, their recommendations will also address the potential and plausible risks associated with the technology, and the science that is needed to ensure its safe development and use.

Because without sound science guiding the safety dialogue, there is every chance that synthetic biology will be derailed by mistrust, misinformation and misunderstanding.

And if this happens, it’s hard to see how anyone can win.

1 Hilary Sutcliffe May 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Following our twitter discussions of course I see we are not that far apart after all, I knew as much!

However it seems to me the issue is not really that ethics is overshadowing safety but that ‘speculative ethics’ and ‘speculative safety’ are being used to anchor the debate using, as you say, unrealistic interpretations of the development of synbio – as if it is either a logical and likely trajectory or pretty much a done deal. These are phrases from an excellent paper that Professor Richard Jones recommended by Alfred Nordman called “If and Then: A critique of speculative nanoethics’ http://bit.ly/bNPzLG which is really worth a read, though packed with subtle stuff – I always feel with his work that if I was just a bit cleverer then I would really understand it perfectly!

However it still leaves me with the same question I asked on twitter. How are the ethicists and the public to know a ‘speculative’ issue from a ‘real’ issue when this and other technologies like nano are so astonishingly beyond our normal understanding in the first place and when the science is hyped by scientists themselves, never mind polarised by the media?

Something MATTER should be addressing I think!

2 Andrew Maynard May 27, 2010 at 9:42 am

Thanks Hilary. Think you’re exactly right – it’s the speculative bit that could get us into hot water, whether it’s speculative ethics or speculative risk.

Which means that one of the things on our emerging technologies wishlist should be a set of tools to help differentiate wild speculation from potentially important stuff. I think this is possible – but in order to get to a grounded conversation, we need to throw out – or at least seriously rethink – some of these definitions designed to boost science and technology!

3 Maryse de la Giroday May 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Hi! Well my last blog posting suggests that a public panic of some kind with regard to these emerging technologies is inevitable. I was feeling a little laissez-faire after I finished and then…I read Andrew Schneider’s latest missive about some company that wants to use dispersants with nanoparticles in the Gulf. I was with Schneider for the most part, valid points being made, until he started quoting some guy called Dr. Michael Harbut (note: Harbut lives in Michigan…Andrew, can’t you do something about him in your new role as King of Michigan?) According to Harbut, nanoparticles, like asbestos, cause mesothelioma. My laissez-faire attitude and sang-froid slipped momentarily on reading this but I will stand by my thesis that a public panic about these emerging technologies is inevitable and it is impossible to predict with any certainty what will set it off or when it will occur. I think science communication strategies should assume and prepare for a public panic the same way that emergency strategies assume a natural disaster of some kind is inevitable. Of course, we need to do a better job with emergency strategies but that’s for another comment. Happy weekend!

4 Winfried Bauer July 16, 2010 at 6:17 am

Sounds like emerging technologies need a good Marketing Agency. How else are the general public going to support something they can’t understand if you don’t make it colourful… maybe even with a hint of ‘pop’. I mean if people can be convinced to eat McDonalds, why can’t you convince them of tech that will potentially save the world from itself… I guess its either that or a disaster…

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