Unleashed Unpredictable Synthetic Organisms in the Wild

Synthetic biology envisions that we can redesign natural biological systems and make them more efficient, and build living machines from common chemical ingredients. And it’s probably an understatement to say, as The New Atlantis journal does, that such Brave New World reordering offers both promise and peril.

Living machines could have many practical applications. Scientists are dreaming of tiny bioengineered organisms that can produce medicines (combating malaria is an early application), attack cancer cells and pollutants, and even produce hydrogen for the vehicles of tomorrow.

The field is still evolving. The first international synthetic biology conference was held at MIT in 2004; the fourth and most recent took place in Hong Kong last October. Much research is university-based in the U.S., Japan, Israel and Europe, but there are also several private companies, including Codon Devices, Synthetic Genomics and Amyris Biotechnologies.

The genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter (who famously sequenced the human genome) has brought both venture capital and government money into companies that can—and do—patent synthetic biological forms. “We’ve been digitizing biology,” he said at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference last year. “And now we’re trying to go from that digital code to a new phase of biology with designing and synthesizing life.”

The discipline known as synthetic genomics aims to artificially recreate specific genes or genomes from synthetic, chemically produced DNA. For instance, scientists believe they will soon be able to recreate nearly any virus by replicating its complete DNA sequence. The price for synthetic DNA is dropping rapidly and could soon reach just 10 cents per base pair (from $10 as recently as 2000), making commercial uses more practical.

Obstacles remain, however, including the fact that bioengineered systems tend to be somewhat unpredictable. But that hasn’t stopped the march toward applying the science. According to the ETC Group’s Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology, “In five to 10 years…it will become no big deal to cobble together a designer genome, insert it into an empty bacterial cell and—voilã—give birth to a living, self-replicating organism.” The peril is that we could be giving birth to organisms that, if released into the environment, will behave in ways far beyond those intended.

Consequences of unleashed and uncontrolled genetically engineered microorganisms (GEMs) could range from habitat damage to extinction of wild species through competition or infection. So far synthetic biology experiments have taken place under carefully controlled conditions, but commercial applications—such as toxic cleanups—envision their wide dispersal.

In a special 2005 issue, the science journal Nature concluded that “our ability to quickly and reliably engineer biological systems that behave as expected remains quite limited.” The magazine uncharacteristically created a comic book, Adventures in Synthetic Biology, that went with the special issue and imagined a junior scientist reprogramming some bacteria to see what happens, only to have it grow to enormous size and then explode. “Hmm,” the young scientist says, “I better learn more about what I’m doing before I try anything else!”

Perhaps to head off such concerns, experts from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the Center for Strategic and International Studies and MIT, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, released a report, “Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance,” in 2007. Firms that supply synthetic DNA could, for example, be required to use special software to screen out malicious orders. Owners of DNA synthesizers could be required to register their machines. And university courses could address risks.

“Designing ways to impede malicious uses of the technology while at the same time not impeding, or even promoting beneficial ones, poses a number of policy challenges for all who wish to use or benefit from synthetic genomics,” says Michele Garfinkel, policy analyst at JCVI and lead author of the report.

The proposed fixes seem inadequate to the challenge posed by synthetic biology. And it’s not only commercial applications that pose concerns. Synthetic biology presents a significant terrorist threat. “If ever there were a science guaranteed to cause public alarm and outrage, this is it,” says Phillip Ball, a consulting editor at Nature. “Compared with conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering, the risks involved in synthetic biology are far scarier.”

We could take comfort from the fact that the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention bans the production of “microbial or other biological agents, or toxins
that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” But terrorists don’t abide international treaties. Because it is possible to recreate viruses, rogue scientists could synthesize deadly killers such as Ebola, though their effective dispersal over wide population areas is not as simple as it appears on television shows like 24.

The rush to develop artificial life has developed into a free-for-all, with regulation lagging considerably behind the advancing science. If we are to give more than lip service to the precautionary principle, they’ll need to be brought in line.