Will it be possible to radically remodel living organisms so that they make products that we want? This is the ambition of one variant of synthetic biology; the idea is to take a simple bacteria, remove all unnecessary functions, and then patch the genetic code for the functions we want. It’s clear that this project is likely to lead to serious ethical issues, and the debate about these issues is beginning in earnest today. At a conference being held in Berkeley today, synthetic biology 2.0, the synthetic biology research community is having discussions on biosecurity & risk, public understanding & perception, ownership, sharing & innovation, and community organization, with the aim of developing a framework for the self-regulation of the field. Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace, Genewatch, Friends of the Earth and ETC, has issued a press release calling on the scientists to abandon this attempt at self-regulation.
Some of the issues to be discussed by the scientists can be seen on this wiki. One very prominent issue is the possibility that malevolent groups could create pathogenic organisms using synthetic DNA, and there is a lot of emphasis on what safeguards can be put in place by the companies that supply synthetic DNA with a specified sequence. This is a very important problem – the idea that it is now possible to create from scratch pathogens like the virus behind the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic frightens many people, me included. But it’s not going to be the only issue to arise, and I think it is very legitimate to wonder whether community self-regulation is sufficient to police such a potentially powerful technology. The fact that much of the work is going on in commercial organisations is a cause for concern. One of the main players in this game is Synthetic Genomics, inc, which was set up by Craig Venter, who already has some form in the matter of not being bound by the consensus of the scientific community.
In terms of the rhetoric surrounding the field, I’d also suggest that the tone adopted in articles like this one, in this weeks New Scientist, Redesigning life: Meet the biohackers (preview, subscription required for full article), is unhelpful and unwise, to say the least.