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Point of View : Mar 15, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 6)

Exorcising "Sin" from Synthetic Bio

Continued Expansion of Controversial Field Depends on Allaying Public Concern
  • Zachary N. Russ

Synthetic biology has arrived. In recent years, the subject has been bandied about through blogs, on science and opinion pages, and in trade publications and niche magazines across the globe. Debaters from every conceivable point of view have hailed it as a scientific breakthrough for rebuilding and re-factoring life, demonized it as “playing God” with the forces of nature, extolled it as a solution for everything from world hunger to climate change, or sown fears of it bringing about the deadliest pathogen ever seen.

All in all, it’s a subject of intense—if not always well-founded—debate, but usually relegated to the periphery of discussion. But we can now say that synbio (as it’s commonly called) has landed squarely in the public forum of ideas. One of its most visible advocates—molecular biologist Lee Silver—was recently invited to appear on The Colbert Report, a popular satirical interview show. In a spirited exchange with the Report’s eponymous host, Professor Silver argued the case for fewer restraints on synbio, at one point implying humans need all the assistance they can muster because, in its rawest form, “Mother Nature is a real nasty bitch.”

As if to confirm that synbio has become a central topic in public discourse, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has released a landmark poll on attitudes about nanotechnology and synthetic biology. One key finding was that Americans’ awareness of synthetic biology has increased substantially in the past year, with the percentage of respondents saying they have heard at least a little about synbio rising from 31% in 2008 to 50% in 2009.

Equally impressive was the finding that fully 90% agreed with the statement, “More should be done to inform the public about this research.” But, perhaps the most telling aspect of the poll, was the range of responses to the question, “What do you think synthetic biology is?” A sample of comments from the poll’s focus group:

  • “Growing human replacement parts comes to mind. I think of mice with human ears growing out of them.”
  • “I think of things being created, chemical reactions, and scientists in a lab playing God.”
  • “If this is truly possible and not pie-in-the-sky dreaming, it would be great.”
  • “I am not sure I love the idea of creating new plants and organisms and messing with nature. But the benefits warrant further investigation.”

So there you have it: Americans are intrigued with the promise of synbio, but are unclear on the nature of it and hesitant about leaving scientists unsupervised in their labs. This is where we begin our effort to hear the public’s concerns regarding safety and ethics, and then integrate those concerns going forward.

Synthetic biology is both evolutionary and revolutionary. Evolutionary because it advances the field of genetic engineering not through some brilliant breakthrough technology, but rather a modular approach to the manipulation and repackaging of genetic parts.

At its most basic level, synbio represents an improvement in protocol that nudges genetic engineering a little more toward the science end of the art-science continuum.  It is revolutionary in that its modular approach vastly speeds up development cycles and new technologies to make genetic engineering easier, cheaper, and more feasible for larger projects.

It brings us closer to achieving the biotech version of Moore’s Law—exponential growth in gene-synthesis capabilities and innovations. Synthetic biology, for all of its remarkable promise, is a lot like its parent field of genetic engineering—as exciting as one’s imagination, but still constrained by stubborn realities.

In his report on the Challenger disaster, Richard Feynman wrote, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” In other words, before we consider integrating public concerns about safety and ethics into some consistent regulatory structure, we must first lay out a foundation of shared understanding and facts. We have to educate the public about what synthetic biology is and how it relates to ideas and realities that the public has previously seen and experienced—realities like genetic engineering and modified organisms.

This initial investment of time and effort to persuade the public will provide that foundation by demonstrating that many of its concerns about synthetic biology are simple misunderstandings and allaying other worries by putting them in context. This is not to say that synthetic biology is without risk, but that its hazards and concerns are not new at all, when compared to those already seen in genetic engineering. Even the National Institutes of Health agrees that, “Synthetic biology has not yielded concerns that fall outside the current risk-assessment framework.”

Addressing Concerns

By carefully explaining the new field’s grounding in existing scientific regimen, we can avoid reinventing the wheel with respect to ethical and safety debates. The arguments that have historically been made about genetic engineering also apply to synthetic biology, and very few truly new questions have actually been introduced with the rise of synthetic biology. These concerns, as well as the holdovers from genetic engineering, can be integrated into our policies on a mostly voluntary, self-regulating basis, as we have done previously.

In fact, there is no single government agency adequately equipped to deal with the preponderance of questions dealing with genetic engineering: NIH covers institutional research, the USDA and FDA take turns at regulating organisms, and the EPA is proposing to expand its own power.

Pioneers in the field have proceeded without much centralized oversight, and, aside from the occasional dramatic intervention from the government (e.g., stem cell research), it is not unreasonable to expect we will continue with business as usual, pushing the envelope of knowledge without losing our bond of trust with the public: a bond built with careful outreach, such as the 1975 Asilomar Conference, in which safety guidelines on recombinant DNA research were voluntarily imposed.

While another such conference may lie in our future, the most direct method we have of addressing the public’s concerns is that we are part of that public. We read the news and chat with our neighbors and colleagues and come home with interesting moral questions; we educate ourselves and each other and, together with our sponsors and institutions, come up with appropriate restrictions based on reasonable ethical and safety considerations.

We aren’t a band of miscreants hell-bent on destroying the world, and we try to persuade others that such things do not make for a good career path—not to mention it has terrible health and dental benefits. This behavior, together with the judgment of those holding the purse strings on research funds, has been enough to prevent major genetic engineering accidents for decades, and controversial experiments have generally been avoided or left unfunded. 

We must forge ahead, patiently educating our fellow members of the public about what we are doing and why we are doing it, pointing out that our families live in the same neighborhoods and breathe the same air as theirs. Occasionally, we might allow ourselves to be proactive and point out that, as deadly pandemics and bacterial outbreaks have frequently demonstrated—and as Professor Silver noted—Mother Nature, left to her own devices, can and will misbehave in major ways.

We as mere mortals must have some of the valuable salves and protections in our kit that have saved countless lives from major diseases and minor infections. How is what synbio aspires to accomplish much different from the scientific regimen that produced those miraculous results?  

In sum, we must regulate ourselves with education, funding control, self-imposed rules in professional societies and institutions, and the most valuable protection of all—an eye for danger and the guidance of our own moral compasses.