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The perils of creating synthetic life

24 May 2010
Appeared in BioNews 559
As an ex-genetic researcher I was incredibly excited to hear in last week's news that researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute, US, have successfully constructed the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell (see this week's BioNews story First synthetic cell created in a laboratory).

This research - an example of a growing area of research called synthetic biology - has the potential for some amazing technologically relevant functions. As the Venter Institute reports, there could be bacteria created that digest oil from leaks and spills, or bacteria that consume cholesterol and other dangerous substances in our bodies. There could even be bacteria designed to attack other microbes that cause so much death and illness.

It all sounds very exciting, and what has been achieved so far is indeed striking. However, my present day ethics training teaches me to be wary of what such an achievement means for society - both now, and in the future. Specifically, this type of research raises a whole raft of philosophical, ethical and - of my greatest immediate worry - regulatory (security and safety) concerns that the public need to be made aware of, and policy makers need to deal with. 

First, on a philosophical level, the creation of synthetic organisms takes a very reductionalist attitude to life, and therefore requires us to question: 'What is life?' and 'How does synthetic life fit into this definition?'

Second, ethically, this technology raises a number of concerns. For example, the over-rehearsed 'are we 'playing god''? concern. This argument is so often brought to the forefront whenever we hear of a novel scientific technique that I will not pursue it here. Another example is clearly demonstrated by the so-called 'poster child' of synthetic biology - the manufacture of a precursor for the anti-malarial drug artemisinin (1). It seems fantastic enough, but the production of synthetic artemisinin will ultimately disadvantage communities in developing countries who rely on wormwood farming as a main source of artemisinic acid and income.

Right now, however, it is the regulatory issues in relation to safety and security (called 'biosafety' and 'biosecurity') that cause my greatest concern. Biosafety relates to researchers, the public, to animals and the environment. Regulators and/or scientists need to consider any potential unintended consequences of the release of synthetic organisms, both in the laboratory and in the environment. Some commentators worry about 'green goo' - analogous to the 'grey goo' envisaged by nanotechnology commentators. This may be a little too extreme for most of us to believe, but does at least bring home the point that safety measures need to be considered carefully.

Biosecurity concerns result from the 'dual-use' nature of this technology - it can be used for the greater good, but potentially also to cause considerable harm. We already have a situation where the DNA sequences of the genomes of many harmful organisms are available on the Internet and we have the technology to synthesise these genomes. It is not hard to extrapolate and imagine how this technology could be used harmfully - possibly even for biological warfare. I know this may seem a little far-fetched at the moment - maybe even sci-fi - but the technology is developing rapidly: in 2002, Science published the synthesis of the poliovirus (2) (7000 base pairs (bp)) and in 2005, US scientists recreated the 1918 'Spanish Flu' virus (3) (13,000 bp). Now we see the first synthetic bacterial cell (1.08 million bp). (For reference the human genome is over 3 billion bp.)

Or consider this - genetic engineering was new, innovative, highly specialised, and very expensive only a few decades ago, and now we see simple genetic engineering techniques performed in the school classroom by school children. In the same way, what is now only possible for experts, will in time become cheaper, easier and more accessible to the lay-person.

So, in conclusion, yes, this technology - like so many others - presents a lot of promise and hope for our future, but effective regulation to protect us from its possible negative consequences is most definitely required. Whether this regulation should be legislative or voluntary is still under debate by many scientists, ethicists and policy makers (4,5). There also needs to be sufficient education of both the public, as well as the scientists who engage in such research, to understand the nature of the risks involved. Most importantly, it is important that we move fast, whilst the industry is in its infancy, to ensure that safe regulation and vital public and scientific education becomes a moral norm.


1) Heemskerk W, Schallig H, de Steenhuijsen Piters B (2006) The World of Artemisia in 44 Questions. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: The Royal Tropical Institute
|  26 October 2021
2) Cello J, Paul AV, Wimmer E (2002) Chemical synthesis of poliovirus cDNA: generation of infectious virus in the absence of natural template. Science 297: 1016-1018
|  26 October 2021
3) Tumpey TM et al (2005) Characterization of the reconstructed 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic virus. Science 310: 77-80
|  26 October 2021
4) Garfinkel MS, Endy D, Epstein GL, Friedman RM (2007) Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance. 2007. Rockville, MD, USA: J Craig Venter Institute.
|  26 October 2021
5) NSABB (2007) Proposed Framework for the Oversight of Dual Use Life Sciences Research: Strategies for Minimizing the Potential Misuse of Research Information. Bethesda, MD, USA: National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.
|  26 October 2021
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21 December 2009 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
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