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 heard testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential yesterday – 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 that happens, it’s hard to see how anyone can win.
Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.