The promise of Synthetic Biology

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Such is the promise of synthetic biology, which, according to the people who have tried to explain it to me, is basically a marketing term for all kinds of research in which scientists tinker with biological bits to make useful things — sort of like living Lego blocks.

The gift of man-made life — biofuels made of algae, tumor-seeking microbial missiles — comes wrapped in a risk: What if the oil-eating bug mutates, as the horror-movie version inevitably does, and starts eating other things — like us?

It's perhaps not surprising that when bioethicists describe synthetic biology, they sound like the characters in Jurassic Park.
"When dealing with biological entities," notes Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics organization, "life has a tendency to find a way."

Accidents at power plants are bad enough. But a leak from a bioreactor could be worse, since bacteria can learn new tricks when you're not looking. Microbes excel at exchanging DNA, Murray notes — "like microbial French kissing." That bug we introduce into the ocean to sip the spill might end up swapping DNA with other living things. "We have a ways to go," he says, "before we can really know what risks we're running if we release these organisms into the environment."

Without public oversight, we are certain to wake up one day to news of some private breakthrough that rattles our bones: a human-animal hybrid, a cloned child, a fetus grown solely to harvest its parts.

As laboratories incubate new blends of man and machine — creatures whose creators used a keyboard — it seems mad to say that philosophy should not intervene.

The path of progress cuts through the four-way intersection of the moral, medical, religious and political — and whichever way you turn, you are likely to run over someone's deeply held beliefs. Venter's bombshell revived the oldest of ethical debates, over whether scientists were playing God or proving he does not exist because someone re-enacted Genesis in suburban Maryland.

Others dismiss the worry on the grounds that creating new forms of life is not the same as creating life. One doctor friend of mine suggested that "they haven't created life in any sense of the word, other than a person playing a cassette has invented the tape recorder."

Conclusion: People are bound to disagree about when scientists are crossing some moral Rubicon. That is all the more reason to debate, in public and in advance, where those boundaries lie — rather than doing so after the fact, when researchers are celebrating some technical triumph and the rest of us are wondering what price we will pay for it.

Information from:,9171,1997447,00.html

"It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development," Obama writes.

"Synthetic biology certainly raises deep philosophical and moral questions about the human relationship to nature," according to Gregory Kaebnick, a Hastings Center scholar who is managing the project. "It's not clear what the answers to those questions are. If by 'nature' we mean the world around us, more or less as we found it, we may well decide that synthetic biology does not really change the human relationship to nature—and may even help us preserve what is left of it."

Myth: Cellulosic ethanol is a decade or more away. Fact: The world's first cellulosic ethanol production facility -- owned and operated by Iogen in Ottawa, Canada -- has been converting wheat straw into ethanol since 2004. Abengoa Bioenergy is completing construction of a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility, located in Salamanca, Spain, that will by the end of 2007 begin producing 1.2 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol from wheat straw each year.