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Event Review: Synthetic Life - How Far Could It Go? How Far Should It Go?

26 October 2015
Appeared in BioNews 825

'The future of humanity is at stake tonight,' said one of the panel members prior to the Royal Institution's debate on the future of synthetic biology. There's probably some truth to that – for some, like me, it's the final frontier in rescuing our planet by bringing together the tools of molecular biology and the creative design process of engineering. For others, it is the subject of dystopian literature. Whatever your opinion, societal views as a whole will impact on how much of this technology we apply and for which problems.

Biology Week, which features the amazing and the important in the world of the biosciences, is a fitting time to debate the topic. On the panel is Professor Robert Edwards, School of Agriculture, Food & Development at the University of Newcastle; Dr Louise Horsfall, Lecturer in Biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh; Professor Paul Freemont, Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London; and Dr Susan Molyneux-Hodgson, Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. The debate is chaired by Dr Adam Rutherford, geneticist, writer, and broadcaster.

Dr Rutherford defined synthetic biology as 'new techniques to modify biology, primarily at the level of DNA, with useful purpose'. This began around 9000 BC when we started influencing genetics through agriculture – the domestication and cultivation of plants and animals for desirable characteristics.

From the 1970s we got more sophisticated at cultivating desirable characteristics by modifying genes, or transferring genes between different species, to add traits useful for us. The evening's discussion centred on the exciting developments in the field in this century – the leap forward, with increasing influence from engineering, where design guides the construction and development of new organisms, rather than tinkering with existing organisms for improvement of function.

Speakers initially presented the case for their interest in synthetic biology – developing solutions for agriculture, health, or waste management, or the sociological implications of using the products of synthetic biology research – and ended by posing a question to the audience, sometimes a controversial one. I've posed their questions here for you to consider.

Professor Edwards researches crop protection and is interested in using synthetic biology technology to tackle challenges we face in food production – an increasing population, and reducing land available for food production. He believes that we need a second 'green revolution' that moves agriculture forward in a leap. The way that advances in chemical and mechanical technologies gave us the first green revolution 100 years ago with agrochemicals and mechanised harvesting for more efficient food production.

Edwards asked the audience, 'Would you eat animal or plant-derived food with clearly labelled processes that involved synthetic biology if they have unique health benefits associated with them?' The answer was almost unanimously yes.

Dr Louise Horsfall explained that using biotechnology for waste management is something we already do with our kitchen waste, which is collected and fed into machines that digest the waste to produce fuel and energy. But where else could synthetic biology take us in waste management? It offers a more efficient and robust solution for the burgeoning problem of plastic wastes. After all, the 5p bag tax recently introduced in the UK will not eliminate the plastic waste that is already soiling our oceans and waterfronts. It is now possible to use synthetic biology to engineer microorganisms – meaning small living things, such as bacteria or yeast – to degrade plastic waste.

Horsfall's rather controversial question was to ask whether we should release such microorganisms into the oceans to clean up plastic waste – to which only half the audience answered yes.

Professor Paul Freemont posed a number of 'what if' questions to the audience before continuing to his audience poll, such as, what if you could add engineered bacteria to a yoghurt drink that could indicate the health of your colon? By changing colour when they detect cancerous cells, observed via the colour of poo when you go to the toilet, you could have 'cheap, personalised, monitoring from the inside out'. If you can engineer detection, perhaps you could engineer them to destroy cancerous cells too? What about using bacteriophages – viruses that insert genetic material into bacteria – to put an end to MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, by making antibiotic-resistant bacteria susceptible to antibiotics once again? What about using bacteria, yeast, or even cells from mammals for 'living therapies' to alter an individual's DNA sequences and genetic network to eliminate inherited diseases? And many others besides.

Freemont asserted that the limits of synthetic biology will not necessarily be technical, but societal – in that the applications and utility will need to be proven and accepted. The technology is still at an early stage, but accelerating rapidly. And a question from a school-aged audience member echoed the thoughts of many in the audience, mine included – sounds fantastic, but bacteria are famed for their fast evolution, how will you safeguard that these weird and wonderful new organisms will continue being of use to us with the engineered function?

Freemont asked the audience, 'would you be happy to have your genome edited to ensure the genetic wellbeing of your children?' Around 70 percent said yes.

Dr Molyneux-Hodgson studies the sociology of science, and also synthetic biologists. She wondered why social sciences and ethical debates seem to be afterthoughts after the science is done – why not study them in parallel with the discoveries and technologies? Funding organisations have recognised the value of this question and require sociological research alongside developments in synthetic biology – so called 'upstreaming of debate'. Defining how we relate to technological developments, as individuals, or as stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds, emerges as the overarching theme from such debates – who takes the lead and makes decisions about what is good for us all?

Molyneux-Hodgson asked the audience whether we should focus on understanding the process behind this branch of science (which is still relatively new and mostly posing 'what if' questions) or should we focus on the products that will come out of it? Again, around 70 percent said yes.

You can watch the debate on the Ri YouTube Channel in a few weeks' time to make up your mind where you stand and find out what else they spoke about. The debate was held at the Royal Institution and organised in partnership with the Royal Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society.

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