Printed: 2020-08-06

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

IEET Link:

Synthetic biology: improved medicine, biofuels, ‘growing’ houses

Dick Pelletier

Ethical Technology

May 28, 2013

Say goodbye to global warming, toxic waste, and dependency on fossil fuels, and get ready to enjoy better health with novel drugs that could one day cure most diseases and extend lifespan indefinitely.

    In addition, as crazy as this may sound, scientists are learning to modify seed genomes so that they will 'grow' directly into bio-buildings. Synthetic biology is about taking control of the natural world at the DNA level in order to accomplish previously impossible things. NASA is considering using this technology to 'grow' habitats on alien planets prior to human arrival – think 'terraforming' Star Trek-style.

    Programming a seed to grow directly into a wooden building may appear ludicrous. However, given that a seed can grow one kind of wooden structure (a tree) using no more than dirt and sunlight, altering its code so that using similar raw materials, it can grow into another form is within reason, scientists believe.

    These are just some of the possibilities researchers envision as they attempt to copy how nature gathers non-living matter and transforms it into life. This 5-min video explains the technology.

    Life is generally not thought of as being mechanical, but in its basic definition, a cell is a miniature machine that rearranges non-living atoms to create parts that bring those atoms to life.

    In 2010, biologist entrepreneur Craig Venter and his team created the world's first synthetic life form; a cell programmed with artificial computer-generated DNA that promises an incredible array of benefits for the world. Venter believes we're at the dawn of an era where new life can be created to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the air and make vaccines.

    Venter's progress and the state of the industry can be found in this fascinating half-hour video.

    Other benefits could include designing new strains of bacteria that consume cholesterol and other dangerous substances in our bodies. We could even create protective bacteria that would seek out, attack, and destroy dangerous microbes that cause so much human misery and death.

    Though most people believe this technology will provide unlimited commercial and medical benefits, others worry about possible runaway dangers, along with ethical and moral issues of human-made life.

    Alarmed by this new technology, President Obama asked his bioethics commission to investigate. The report saw no need to halt synthetic biology research, nor impose new regulations on the fledgling field. This was great news to synthetic biologists who can now focus on furthering the technology.

    Naysayers are concerned though; they say this technology could lead to unpredictable dangers.

    Could artificial lifeforms ever run amok and destroy our world? “When these things are created, they are so weak, we're lucky if they remain alive for an hour in the lab,” says Mark Bedau, COO of ProtoLife in Venice, Italy. Breaking out and taking over the world – never in our wildest imagination could this happen.

    However, conservatives see still another issue to be resolved. Synthetic biology challenges our most cherished notions of the meaning of life. Is life sacred, or has it been reduced to a formula in a computer.

    In another research project, Harvard Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak predicts his team will produce a complete cellular system by 2015. Once this happens, Szostak says, Darwinian evolution will take over, revealing a more precise picture of how modern cells rose from their simpler ancestors.

    This knowledge will help scientists understand how humans evolved in the past, and provide guidance towards a future human evolution driven, not by nature, but by tomorrow's synthetic biology.

    We will see tiny self-reproducing factories, disease-killing machines, and exotic creations performing many useful functions. Experts believe that by 2020, synthetic life creations could eliminate, or make manageable, nearly all human sicknesses, including most of today's dreaded age-related diseases.

    Positive futurists believe that by 2030 or before, synthetic biology could provide everyone an affordable, ageless, forever healthy body fashioned from newly-created 'designer genes.' Welcome to the future.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837