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BioPerspectives

Sharing the Real Synthetic Biology

  • Zachary N. Russ

The Internet is a fascinating appliance. The ultimate in far-flung peer-to-peer systems, it allows consumers to double as producers and distributers of content. It's a revolution on par with widespread literacy and the printing press. But the same media that topple dictators and expose wrongdoing can also be used to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD).

Panic Feeds on FUD

FUD—the term—gained popularity in the early days of open-source desktop computing, when companies concerned with their marketshare would spread vague rumors of infringements or security holes in competing free software tools. Ruled by its users, the Internet was partitioned into circles of common interest; sources with a particular bias could be counted on to link to material supporting their viewpoints, and that material was often hosted by a user of a similar persuasion. Free as always, the answers were still out there; but the deluge of information can be daunting when many stories are retweets or reposts or links and so on.

What's so wrong with that? Why not let users hang out in their personal echo chambers? If they want the other side of the story, there's always Google. However, Google does not think for you—you need to know the right questions to ask it, and you need the ability to pick out the most relevant (and reliable) pieces of data. It does not discriminate between misinformation and fact, so FUD can hang around for decades, long after it has been thoroughly debunked. It is repeated in these echo chambers until it is dogma and serves to prop up extreme positions.

There are precious few occupations that do not draw the ire of some fringe group—firefighters, perhaps. Actually, amend that—volunteer firefighters; as some sites claim the municipal ones are overpaid. Well, you say tomato, I say inferno.

So it really comes as no surprise that there are echo chambers devoted to covering synthetic biology misdeeds. It's the same groups who have protested GMOs for decades now, and their perennial reports on the dangers of genetic engineering are akin to the phonebooks once regularly delivered to every doorstep.

But don't dismiss them. The groups themselves are heterogeneous, and behind the ample supply of rebels without a clue are thoughtful individuals who genuinely believe the work we do will disrupt the natural order and bring ruin to the Earth and, by extension, humanity. Sure, there are those who have ulterior motives and attempt to seed mistrust of conventional science to sell snake oil or garner votes, but no amount of evidence will win those minds. But for the true believers, an earnest discussion of the facts may yield some breakthroughs.

Inferno, Tomato

Opposition to synthetic biology comes from a pro-natural-living, anticommercial alliance of groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and ETC Group—all producing well-cited, thorough reports. ETC in particular stands out for their gruesome Día de los Muertos-esque illustrations. But you read through them, and year after year the same falsehoods get trotted out as if they were some recently leaked secret.

Often, it's misunderstanding a quote—like the gem in Greenpeace's "Genetic Engineering: Too Good to Go Wrong?" where they cite a paper mentioning methylglyoxal toxicity in fermentation conditions as if it's a danger to us. We do have a problem with methylglyoxal—it can kill biofuel-making microbes. Methylglyoxal also appears in other overly sugar-rich environments—Manuka honey, wines, and diabetics all contain methylglyoxal. A back-of-the-envelope calculation gives ~160 uM methylglyoxal for the GMO yeast, while Manuka honey routinely contains over 1,800 uM. Non-GMO produced port wines can go as high as 140 uM, from what I could find.

But that one was easy. One pseudofact that keeps making the rounds (even in the ETC group's latest) is a paper describing how a nearly field-tested GMO Klebsiella killed the wheat plants it was added to. The experiment itself isn't so bad, but the conclusions drawn—that the Klebsiella (modified to ferment straw into alcohol) could have killed off all terrestrial life—were a bit over the top. Especially considering there are alcohol-producing Klebsiella in the wild, the gene transfer that produced the GMO could have taken place in the wild, and it looked like the GMO was being outcompeted or dying.

Even after an excellent rebuttal and the author's subsequent withdrawal of these claims, this myth continues to crop up. Humor websites and mainstream books refer to the event as if we were minutes from Doomsday, failing to note that the idea was discredited.

These myths depend as much on the hype surrounding synthetic biology as the fears. Presentations that make synthetic biology look easy, even trivial, are misleading, but they set the stage for these scenes of horror. Our tools have barely reached beyond what Nature can do in its own laboratory, with every free-living animal, microbe, plant, and virus as its experiments.

The myths and misinformation surrounding synbio must be addressed and corrected in every venue if the achievements of the field are to stand out over the reverberations of the echo chambers. So, for 2012, let's make it clear that we have safety and sustainability on our minds and dispel the FUD. The options for addressing dependence on petrochemicals and mitigating human disease are limited already—let's not limit them further by allowing FUD to take over. FUD allows critics to use an amorphous blob of ignorance to link legitimate concerns like corporate malfeasance and exploitation to synthetic biology when they have little to do with the technology itself.

Abuse and corruption by agricultural companies is no new innovation—the term "banana republic" was coined decades ago. The burning sugarcane picture in the Friends of the Earth's latest publication is captioned with a reference to synthetic biology—but that picture could easily be sugarcane going to feed Brazil's strong ethanol production, which took off in 1975 in response to the global oil crisis. Developments in harvester technology have removed the need to burn the fields at all.

As the cleanest, safest solution to cleanly replace petrochemicals and build new medicines, synthetic biology must be pursued. To do that, we must ensure it is properly represented.