Embracing a breakthrough
Questioning its consequences

 

 

On May 20, President Obama gave his newly minted Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues its first assignment: to consider the ethical implications of “synthetic biology,” prompted by the most recent accomplishment of the J. Craig Venter Institute.

 
Craig Venter, the American biologist and entrepreneur who competed with the National Institutes of Health in the race to sequence a human genome (he sequenced his own), recently announced that he and fellow scientists have successfully transplanted an artificially synthesized genome of one type of bacteria into a second type of bacteria, getting the recipient to behave like the donor species.

 

Because the parents were essentially chemical bottles and computers, and because the bacteria began to grow and divide following transplantation, the achievement is considered a major advance in the field of synthetic biology. Eventually, according to Venter, the goal of his team’s work is to design organisms that have ambitious and much-needed applications—including for fuel generation, the making of pharmaceuticals and as pollution cleanup agents.

 

The day that the “proof of theory” appeared on the website for Science, also on May 20, headlines sprang up that did not understate the news. For instance, MSNBC declared “It’s alive! Artificial DNA controls life,” while on the Christian Science Monitor, the headline read, “Scientists create ‘synthetic life,’ fuel debate over bioethics.”

 

Beyond the headlines

 

Although what Venter’s group created is alive—in that it is a self-replicating organism with all of its functions operating—the scientists did not create life, according to Debra Mathews, Ph.D., assistant director for science programs at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Rather, Mathews explains, Venter’s team assembled a copy of a known genome and “booted” it up in an existing cell.
“It’s more like putting a rebuilt engine in a car,” says Mathews, who oversees the Berman Institute’s Stem Cell, Ethics and Policy program. “He didn’t ‘make’ the car, but he did install in it the essential core that powers it. He didn’t ‘invent’ the engine, he just reconstituted it based on an existing design.”

 

Venter is perhaps best known for his race against the U.S. Human Genome Project to complete the sequencing of the human genome—an accomplishment that just observed its 10th anniversary. His institute, in Rockville, Md., continues to push the boundaries of synthetic biology.

 

Broadly defined, according to syntheticbiology.org, the term refers to “the design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world.” The site also says that synthetic biology is focused on redesigning and fabricating existing biological systems, and that’s where Venter and his colleagues fit into the field.

 

Taking the genome from a simple cell, a small bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides, they transferred it into a closely related species, Mycoplasma capricolum. As described on the Venter Institute’s website, the experiment built on work in 2008 in which they were able to synthesize a small bacterial genome but failed to activate it in a cell.

 

Potential Consequences

 

Venter says that, throughout all of his work, over the span of about 15 years, he and his team have been careful about seeking ethical review. “Continued and intensive review and dialogue with all areas of society, from Congress to bioethicists to laypeople, is necessary for this field to prosper,” they say on their website.

 

“Synthetic biology certainly raises deep philosophical and moral questions about the human relationship to nature,” said Gregory Kaebnick, a scholar at the Hastings Center leading an examination of the moral issues raised by synthetic biology. “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.”

 

Mathews points out that advances in synthetic biology also raise concerns about safety and “dual use”—although such worries are downstream, more relevant to the time when scientists will be able to create a new life form. “One worry is that science may know enough to create such a life form, but not enough to predict how it will act in a natural environment or how to control it if something goes awry,” Mathews said. “This is a legitimate concern—how to minimize risk and maximize likely benefit—but is not sufficient justification for stopping an emerging science long before such applications are possible.”

 

As for dual use, Mathews said the worry is that the technology that enables the creation of a synthetic life form that can, for instance, clean up oil spills, could also enable the creation of an organism with nefarious applications as, say, a new bio-warfare agent.

 

“These are questions of governance,” Mathews ends by saying, “which we absolutely should be asking and addressing sooner, rather than later.”

 

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Contributors
Debra Mathews
Michael Pena

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