BioPerspectives

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Mar 15, 2012

Synthetic Biology Brouhaha

  • Earlier this week the environmental group Friends of the Earth released a report entitled “Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology.” Twenty pages long, the report established seven principles “to safeguard public health and the environment from the novel risks of synthetic biology and to ensure open, meaningful and full public participation in decisions regarding its uses.”

    The seven principles are as follows: employ the precautionary principle, require mandatory synthetic biology-specific regulations, protect public health and worker safety, protect the environment, guarantee the right-to-know and democratic participation, require corporate accountability and manufacturer liability, and protect economic and environmental justice.

    What caught my eye, in particular, was the report’s reference to synthetic biology as “extreme genetic engineering.” No longer were scientists just moving genes around and splicing them into the DNA of various organisms. The report pointed out that researchers can now create new genes and life forms right from scratch.

    Having covered biotechnology as a professional journalist/editor for over 25 years, when I first learned about synthetic biology, it did give me cause for a reflective pause as opposed to my absolute nonworry about organisms developed through recombinant DNA experiments. It was this idea of creating completely new organisms that had never been subject to the rigors of the evolutionary process that kept bouncing around in my head. What would happen if a synbio creation were to make its way into the environment? I am not talking about an apocalyptic scenario, which I am sure some synbio opponents consider a possibility, but rather how might such an organism impact the environment full of many types of other organisms, all of which had been selected by evolution. To what degree, if any, would the ecological balance be disturbed or disrupted?

    During an online news conference to discuss the report, the comments of Dr. Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at NY Medical College and a board member of the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology, struck me as quite thoughtful.

    Dr. Newman called synbio techniques “very powerful and useful for understanding living systems.” But he maintained that researchers still do not truly know how organisms are put together and dislikes the oft-used synbio term “biobricks.”

    “Biobricks conveys the idea that living systems are lego block modules that can be put together to make a living entity whose properties you understand.” That just is not the case, said Dr. Newman.

    Unlike a number of synbio opponents who call for a complete ban on any kind of work in this field, Dr. Newman said that researchers should “continue to work on it scientifically,” but that the field is nowhere near commercialization.

    I believe that synthetic biology brings an entirely new dimension to biotechnology research and that numerous medical and scientific benefits will eventually ensue. Investigations in this area need to not only go on but expand as well. But I also think that until a stronger level of regulatory oversight is established and more scientific knowledge is gained about synbio organisms, any talk of commercialization anytime soon is premature.


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