Synthetics — the new moral playing-field

by
17 June 2009

Synthetic biology gives scientists the ability to create novel forms of life, but it has serious ethical implications, says Robin Gill

Synthetic biology does not simply reorder some natural components (as genetic engineering does); it at­tempts also to synthesise artificial com­ponents with living components in order to produce, for example, more efficient bio-fuels or personal­ised forms of medicine. Machines in the future might even contain “living” components.

This novel area brings together the skills of computer-modelling and advanced engineering with DNA-mapping and synthesising. De­veloped over the past decade, particu­larly in Boston and the Bay Area of California, it has now come to Britain. A Centre of Synthetic Bio­logy has recently been established at Imperial College, London, and there are similar developments at Cam­bridge and Edinburgh Universities.

The Royal Academy of Engineer­ing has just published a report, Synthetic Biology: Scope, applications and implications (www.raeng.org.uk), which offers a state-of-the-art over­view of this developing science. En­couragingly, the report also de­votes a substantial chapter to the ethical and social implications of syn­­thetic bio­logy.

The Royal Academy of Engineer­ing has just published a report, Synthetic Biology: Scope, applications and implications (www.raeng.org.uk), which offers a state-of-the-art over­view of this developing science. En­couragingly, the report also de­votes a substantial chapter to the ethical and social implications of syn­­thetic bio­logy.

It is excellent to see scientists ad­dressing ethical issues before a novel development. At stake are not just the usual questions about safety and in­tellectual property, but also more chal­lenging ones about national security and the propriety of creat­ing novel forms of life.

The immediate applications of syn­thetic biology do not appear to be particularly threatening. The Aca­demy’s report states: “Syn­thetic biology aims to design and engineer biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as redesigning existing, natural biological systems.” It argues that it could make im­portant contribu­tions to health care, agriculture, industry, and even climate change.

The development of new drugs, for example, seems at first sight to be relatively unchallenging. An anti-malarial drug (artemisinin) has al­ready been developed using syn­thetic biology, and is likely to go into full production, with huge potential for better health in many developing countries. In future, personalised drugs produced by synthetic biology may have less harmful side effects, and be able to respond more “intel­ligently” to the body’s defence mec­hanisms.

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But what if synthetic biology is used instead to produce harmful agents that can be used by terrorists? Garage technology in California al­ready makes it possible for individuals (benevolent or malevolent) to ex­periment in this area without any formal control.

The Academy’s report alarmingly states: “In the US [biosecurity] is the most heavily debated social risk associated with synthetic biology. . . Biosecurity concerns were triggered by the synthesis of several patho­genic viruses, including the 1918 influenza virus and an infectious polio virus that was synthesised using only published DNA se­quenced information and mail-ordered raw materials.”

Three years ago, a Guardian journ­alist in the UK showed that he could order the DNA sequences for the smallpox virus and have them de­livered to his home.

It is clear that great vigilance is needed. Sadly, technology, as the scientist and theologian Ian Barbour often reminded us, is in itself neither good nor bad: it is power that can be used or misused. Similarly, com­puters can be used for better communi­cation between friends and families, or they can be misused to download child pornography or to help the perpetrators of 9/11 and 7/7. That is not a reason for abandoning com­puters, or now synthetic biology, but it is a reason for vigilance and, where possible, careful governance.

Another imminent use of syn­thetic biology is the production of new biomaterials. For example, people in the South Pacific have long used the silk of the orb spider web to make fishing nets and traps because it is both strong and light. Synthetic versions of this silk may soon be in full production and may be bene­ficial in many different areas. Aero­planes, for example, would be more fuel-ef­ficient and less damaging to the environment if they were lighter, while remaining strong.

Yet producing synthetic forms of nature, and, in turn, novel forms of life not found in nature raises un­nerving questions about life itself. The first synthetic organism (a polio virus) was produced in 2002 by Dr Jeronimo Cello and his co-workers at the State University of New York. The Academy’s report notes the qualms of some about such a dev­elopment: “The creation of synthetic living organisms according to rational and reductionist engineer­ing principles is likely to invoke worries about scientists ‘playing God’, and some may object to syn­thetic biology at the outset for this reason.”

The theologian and ethicist Paul Ramsey accused scientists 40 years ago of “playing God” in the early days of IVF, and a number of theologians have made the same accusation against biotechnologists today. Yet most of modern medicine and all sur­gery could be banned if this accusa­tion were taken too literally. Perhaps it is more appropriate to argue for ethical responsibility, and to resist such theological hyperbole.

Synthetic biology does bring ethical challenges that need tobe ad­dressed carefully and responsi­bly. It is encouraging that the Royal Academy is developing this discussion in Britain.

Canon Robin Gill is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent.

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