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New Life, New Rules

By James M. Wilsterman

Bioengineer J. Craig Venter is expected to announce within the next few months, perhaps weeks, that he and his company, Synthetic Genomics of Rockvile, Md. and La Jolla, Calif., have created Earth’s first artificial life form. The feat will be an important milestone in the growing scientific world of “synthetic biology” (synbio). If you haven’t heard of synthetic biology yet, you are not alone. Research in this groundbreaking field is advancing light years ahead of public awareness, but decisions made now will have implications for everyone within the next few decades.

Synthetic biology will be a fact of the 21st century—the question is whether governing bodies will be prepared. The infrastructure to deal with safety concerns needs to be put in place now to avoid future problems.

Venter and his team have already succeeded in creating a synthetic chromosome—based on the DNA sequence of the active bacterium Mycoplasma gentitalium. Their artificial chromosome was built entirely from available chemicals and has been christened, Mycoplasma labortorium. In theory, the chromosome could be transplanted into an empty bacterial cell and replicate itself thereafter. Synthetic Genomics has already filed for a patent on their “biological invention.” Scientists believe that they will soon be able to create “designer genomes,” promising synthetic bacteria that could curb global warming by breaking down atmospheric carbon dioxide or ease global energy needs by producing nonpolluting renewable fuel.

However, synbio research currently faces widespread concerns of ethics and safety. On the ethical front, the synbio debate closely mirrors those of the last few decades. While initially, some may be nervous that scientists are creating life or perhaps “playing God,” in truth there are only small ethical differences between creating designer chromosomes and creating artificial copies of naturally occurring DNA for use in genetic modification experiments which began in the 20th century. Only now, scientists will be able to create genes that don’t preexist in nature and will thus be more specialized.

The primary issue at hand is one of safety, not ethics. A Canadian action group named Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) has been a consistent critic of synbio research and plans to challenge Venter’s patent application. Two commonly cited risks of this research include the possibility for “bio-terror,” which is the use of new and potentially devastating bioweaponry by terrorist groups, and “bio-error,” which includes any inadvertent injury done to the environment by escaped synthetic material. Both supporters and critics of synthetic biology acknowledge the potential dangers with research in this field.

George Church, professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, confesses he is a “chronic worrier.” He recognizes the need to have something more than a loose code of conduct governing research in synthetic biology, the field in which he focuses. In 2004 he published “A Synthetic Biohazard Non-proliferation Proposal” advocating specific strategies to strengthen oversight of synbio laboratories. Unfortunately, many concerns raised in this paper still remain unaddressed today. In 2006 Church sought outside support and helped form the International Consortium for Polynucleotide Synthesis (ICPS), which has submitted further proposals for security adoption in conjunction with members of the CIA and FBI.

Church fully understands the hazards of synbio research and stressed in an interview, “Don’t discount the fear; it needs to be channeled into action. You can’t just sit on your hands.” Specific action is required now by government authorities and policy makers. Church believes the key to ensuring safe research practice will be the development of advanced computer surveillance software to be used in laboratories internationally. Without this oversight it could become too easy for anyone to order the synthetic DNA of, say, drug-resistant small pox. Software could flag the orders of any potentially dangerous synthetic materials and instantly notify an oversight authority, such as the FBI. So, future students in Life Sciences 1a could hypothetically order certain harmless synthetic chromosomes for laboratory experiments, yet be unable to order dangerous versions or have access to the equipment to construct their own.

A common criticism of synbio scientists has been their reliance on self-created regulatory systems in safety proposals. “Extreme Genetic Engineering,” a paper published by ETC in January, states, “Synthetic biologists are making a concerted effort to stave off government scrutiny by making proposals that amount to self-regulation.” The truth is that policy adoption has been too slow—not research too fast. Regarding his surveillance proposal, which would rely on law enforcement investigating flagged reports, Church argues, “We have to get the FBI interested enough in reports. I don’t think this is self-governance.”

While ETC would prefer that research were halted in time for policy makers to assess the synbio landscape, the truth is that if research in this field were slowed in the U.S., international laboratories would have an instant scientific advantage. This would be similar in the way that strict domestic stem cell research policies have allowed for oversea successes. But unlike with stem cell research, error in efficient oversight of synbio research in any one country could cause instant global repercussions—bacteria, of course, don’t observe borders. If anything, U.S. lawmakers should want domestic companies to be at the forefront of this field in order to leverage more control in the introduction of standardized international policies.

It is a fallacy to say that synthetic biologists are against government cooperation. However, research cannot slow while policies are implemented. And if synbio is to soon unlock the promises that Venter and others have claimed it will, we need policy and oversight in place now and we need law enforcement agencies engaged now if we are to protect ourselves from the bad that may come with all of the potential good.

James M. Wilsterman ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.

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