Synthetic Biology: playing God or just plain odd? Part 2

At the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, a group of academics attempt to unravel the likely cause of the end of the world. The top contenders, so called ‘global catastrophic risks’, include the sci fi stalwart totalitarianism, cold war favourite nuclear war and Jeremy Clarkson bugbear global warming. Also on the list is the threat arising from misuse of biotechnology. In an interview with the BBC in March of this year, the director of the FHI, Nick Bostrom, stated that synthetic biology was a primary concern in this area (along with artificial intelligence and nanotechnology). With these technologies advancing at such a rate, he argues, we are not fully able to comprehend the potential dangers of the tools we develop. This was likened to ‘a dangerous weapon in the hands of a child’ by Bostrom.

Admittedly, these guys are paid good money to let us know that the end is nigh. They are bound to err on the side of caution. But they’re not the only people raising such concerns

about the potential dangers of synthetic biology. In my last blog, I talked about where the field came from, and briefly highlighted some of its aims. Generation of cheap and readily available vaccines, use of bacteria to purify dirty water, and production of fuel from unwanted waste products are just a few examples of things that could potentially be achieved using this new technology. But, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. In the second part of this special, I’ll look at some of the major concerns raised by critics of synthetic biology, and investigate how scientists in the field are trying to overcome these concerns.

In general, arguments against pursuing development of synthetic biological tools tend to follow one of two lines of reasoning:

1/ Even though the scientists doing the work want only want what’s best for the world, the tools they generate are liable to fall into the wrong hands (let’s call this the biohacker argument)

2/ If synthetically generated organisms escaped from the lab into the environment, there’s no knowing what effect they could have on the earth’s ecosystem (the GM mark two argument).

So do these arguments have legs? Let’s consider each in turn.

1/ The biohacker argument

In garden sheds and garages across the globe, DIY biology communities are springing up. With the price of basic lab equipment decreasing, and the availability of scientific protocols online increasing, it is now easy for amateur scientists to perform basic experiments such as visualisation of their DNA (I recommend that you  try this at home), gene sequencing and even production of glow-in-the-dark cells colonies. Based on the belief that science belongs to everyone, DIY biologists, or biohackers, believe that anyone should be able to perform scientific experiments, no matter their experience or qualifications.

Biohackers and synthetic biology could be said to share an ideology – both groups take things apart and put them back together, in the hope of better understanding the world around them. And it is from here that concerns about biohackers stem.

BioBricks is a not-for-profit group who host a repository for DNA ‘parts’ made by synthetic biologists. The aim is that a battery of standardised DNA modules with known functions will be stored at the repository. These modules can then be used by anyone to generate new synthetic organisms – the DNA sequence and function of each block will be openly available. But, the argument goes, if generation of a wide variety of new synthetic species is so easily achievable, what’s to stop biohackers, like computer hackers, from taking this knowledge, and using it for harm?

This argument has been relatively easy to scoff at until recently. After all, biohackers are amateurs, not world leaders in synthetic biology. How much harm can they do in their back gardens? However, in April a Kickstarter project was set up by biohackers, who asked for funding to attempt to generate synthetic wheat that would produce green fluorescent protein, and so glow in the dark. Now, on its own this is hardly terrifying (although proponents of argument 2 would disagree, see below). However, it does signify that biohackers may potentially be able to wield more power than they were maybe given credit for.

The crux of this argument really lies in whether you believe it is likely that DNA ‘parts’ with the potential to do harm will be made, recorded, and available to the general public. If they are, we must assume that they will be used to cause harm, human nature being what it is. But it seems doubtful that biohackers will have the tools at their disposal to do much harm, at least in the near future. A much more present danger seem likely come from rogue countries, that have the funding to keep up to date with synthetic biology, and little regard for the dangers involved. How this can be controlled is too complex an issue for this blog, but it is certainly true that this worry has not prevented technological advances in the past.

2/The GM mark two argument

Recently, it’s been reported that an unidentified strain of GM wheat has been found in a field in Oregon. The plants have purportedly been traced back to a strain belong to biotech company Monsanto, that was supposedly disposed of in 2005 (although Monsanto strenuously deny that the plants are from their lines). Regardless of the origin, this case highlights the difficulty of recalling transgenic organisms once they’ve been released into the environment. And, if that holds true for GM plants, there is no reason that the same should not be said for synthetic organisms, whether bacterial, plant or animal. This issue has become particularly prominent in recently weeks, thanks to the aforementioned kickstarter project to produce glow-in-the-dark plants. The reward to funders? Seeds, to allow them to grow their own fluorescent plants.

It’s easy to see why this is worrying. Distribution of a synthetic organism around the world would result in its uncontrolled release into the environment. Fortunately, in this instance, the project seems unlikely to come to fruition (glowing uses up a lot of energy that the plant would otherwise spend on other activities, like growing, so these glowing plants, if they can even be made, are unlikely to spread far). However, the principle is important, and real – synthetic organisms could one day make it into the wild.

How can this be avoided? Synthetic biologists are already including preventative measures into the organisms they generate. For example, many of the cells used by the scientists are designed such that they can only grow in very specialist conditions, found in the lab but not in the environment. If the cells managed to escape the lab, they would lack the nutrients needed to propagate, and so die. Thanks to this type of experimental design, the chance of an organism escaping the lab is minute. There is a worry however, that sections of synthetic DNA could find their way into other bacteria, via a mechanism called horizontal gene transfer.

Horizontal gene transfer is the process by which different bacteria swap bits of DNA. It is often observed between naturally occurring species, and is already a bit of a pain in the arse – it’s responsible for spreading of antibiotic resistance between bacterial species. This ability to transfer DNA not just down the generations but also between completely different species is particularly worrying for opponents of synthetic biology, who observe that science has been powerless to stop the spread of antibiotic resistance. In an effort to minimise the risk of horizontal gene transfer of synthetic DNA, complex safety mechanisms called kill switches have been included in new synthetic species. One example is a toxin/anti-toxin pair. A gene which makes a toxic protein is included in the synthetic DNA, and an antidote to the toxin is attached to the natural DNA of the bacteria. If the synthetic DNA transfers to a different species, the toxin will be produced in this species, but no anti-toxin will be made to combat it, and the bacteria will die.

Mechanisms like these kill switches have ensured that the chance of synthetic DNA escaping is minimal; however, they are not 100% efficient. The chance remains that the sequence of the DNA could mutate as bacterial cells grow and divide, rendering the kill switch useless. Opponents argue that without fail-safe systems to prevent release of synthetic DNA into the environment, this research is bound to be dangerous. It seems, then, that horizontal gene transfer is the biggest threat from synthetic biology in the immediate future..

These arguments against synthetic biology are grounded in reason, and must be addressed if the field is to avoid coming up against a wall of bad publicity. GM crops fought this battle and lost, in Europe at least (final attempts by Monsanto to attain approval for growing GM in Europe were dropped last week). Stem cell research was held back for years in the wake of a wave of public disapproval in the US. Synthetic biology hopes to avoid this fate by being as transparent as possible. Throughout its short history, the field has made an active effort to communicate each step with the general public. Furthermore, rather than shying away from criticisms, the field has taken each argument seriously, and appears keen to engage in debate about the moral issues involved – many of the attendees of SB6.0 were social scientists.

I can’t help but feel that by predicting that synthetic biology could bring about the end of the world, Bostrom and his colleagues are indulging in scaremongering. In their work, the scientists at the FHI are not aiming to weigh up the balance between potential benefit and harm. Rather, they seek out only the negative impact that a new technology can have. This sort of attitude is callous, and undermines the credibility of a field like synthetic biology,  which has such potential to do good.  I, for one, am willing to believe that these advances will not bring about the apocalypse – and am sure that it’s a chance worth taken in the hope that synthetic biology will improve living conditions for millions the world over.

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