Saturday, August 14, 2004

The discontents of synthetic biology

You know it's going mainstream when a non-technical magazine like Prospect publishes an article on synthetic biology, mostly on the potential dangers thereof. It's definitely a valid point, and I think the smart thing to do would be to nip potential public concern in the bud by developing a set of guidelines used to regulate the sort of stuff that gets worked on. There is already a precedent for this -- in 1975, a set of biologists gathered in Asilomar, in California, to talk about the possible dangers inherent in recombinant DNA [ie putting genes from one organism into another]. For example, one issue that worried some researchers was what would happen if E.coli [a bacterium that exists by the millions in everybody's intestines, btw] acquired genes that gave it immunity to penicillin, as well as genes that made it toxic, and then spread into the general population. The outcome of that conference was a set of guidelines that researchers agreed to stick to, which helped to calm down both public and government fears and pre-empted any heavy-handed government legislation.

There's an article here that talks about a conference that was held in 2000 to talk about whether the historic 1975 conference could help in any way with some of the existing concerns about things like genetically modified foods, germ-line engineering and xenotransplantation [ie transplanting organs from animals into people]. One thing that struck me as particularly relevant to synthetic biology in that article is this bit:

At the end of last month's meeting, Berg reflected on the differences between 1975 and 2000 and what they might mean for the resolution of scientific controversies. One factor that made the first meeting work, he said, was the "suddenness of the issue." Because molecular biologists weren't yet heavily invested in recombinant DNA technology and the public knew little about it, "it was much easier to get people to agree on a course of action," Berg told Science. Most of the issues discussed at last month's conference are "chronic," he noted. And "once an issue becomes chronic, positions become hardened, and consensus is much more difficult to achieve."

If you agree with this logic, then now is the perfect time to start this conversation in the synthetic biology community, because it's early days there for researchers. As Drew Endy put it to me when describing the Synthetic Biology 1.0 conference which he just organized: "This is the first time that all the people who have been working on this stuff came together and said 'Hey, look, there are other people working on this, I don't have to apologize for doing this stuff anymore'" [paraphrased, of course =)].

Another bit I found rather interesting was

Those who gathered at Asilomar in 1975 represented a research community that was purely academic in its interests. Today, "there are few pure academics left" in molecular biology, Baltimore noted. As genetic engineering has gone commercial, academics have followed, and today most senior academic researchers have ties to biotechnology companies that would complicate any attempts at self-scrutiny.

Yes, it's a lot easier to get consensus when there's no money on the line. And there will be money on the line pretty soon in synthetic biology, I'd wager -- the promises of being able to just "build" any biological system you want are bound to spur the creation of lots of companies.

Luckily, it looks like some of the conversation has already started; a talk by George Poste at the aforementioned Synthetic Biology 1.0 conference is about how to create the right regulatory framework for this field [and others that may face similar issues]. There's also a talk by Paul Rabinow that appears to be about the relevant ethics. I say "appears" because, from the brief scan I did of it, it appears to be rather, uhm, "high level" [aka "a bit fluffy"] and so I didn't bother reading much of it.


Blogger Piglar said...

I'm sick of you MIT types and all your fancy language and conferences to justify playing God. I saw Jurassic Park, Species, The Relic and iRobot (all right, I didn't see iRobot, but no one else did, either.) I know what you're up to. You're trying to engineer some evil monster that will eat everyone on Earth, like all those giant radioactive Ants in the movies in the 70s.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See, now that's exactly what I mean by starting to have the necessary discussions early to avoid public backlash when we get as far as actually being able to make giant ants that eat everybody ;-)

9:38 AM  

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