Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Reinventing the Wheel?

A forward looking report on ethics surrounding synthetic biology produced for the US government was released in December. The freely available report, “New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies” sets out 18 recommendations for how the growth of the new technologies should be handled, to make sure that the most good comes from these technologies without causing harm.

Early on, the report makes mention of Craig Venter’s “development of synthetic life” in May 2010 as the spark that made the US government want to consider where synthetic biology could go and what might need to be done in response. Reassuringly, they quickly remove any illusion that Craig Venter’s discovery in itself is anything more profound than a much “bigger” version of a fairly standard molecular biology experiment. The difference between genetic engineering and synthetic biology is the scale that synthetic biology implies; using the same principles that you would use to modify an organism to build them. Many of the issues synthetic biology raises are the same as those surrounding GMOs, so this is well trodden ground. While Venter’s discovery alone is not a game changer, it is the first step on a long road towards truly synthetic organisms which could be very important in the future. For example, synthetic biology could create a “perfect” organism for producing biofuel, biopharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals.

The recommendations are based around 5 ethical principles. Firstly, ensuring that the public benefit and that risk is minimal. Secondly, responsibility for the well-being of the environment and future generations. Thirdly, protecting intellectual freedom and maintaining responsibility. Fourthly, that democracy is key to making decisions, and finally that fairness is maintained. Each of the 18 recommendations is aimed at one of these principles. One of the themes running throughout the report is how to regulate synthetic biology research, not ruling anything out if it can shown that there will be benefits to the public down the line, but not letting it progress completely freely. While the public would be involved, peer review and the involvement of experts would still be one of the most powerful tools at hand for working out what needs to be regulated and how.

There might be difficulties down the line; since the scale of the aims for synthetic biology are new, it’s difficult to see where it could lead to in the future. Craig Venter’s various projects are aimed at biofuel development and other big issues affecting the world, but what pressures are affecting the world in a hundred years might be things we couldn’t guess and there might be technologies developed in synthetic biology that we can’t predict. So, another running theme in the report is the need for the government to keep monitoring how synthetic biology develops and to keep looking back at whether the regulatory system is helping or hindering new technology produce benefits for the public. The report emphasizes that this can’t be something the US does alone, that the US needs to cooperate internationally and involve organizations like the World Health Organization.

Objections to synthetic biology will be revisited as it develops; at the moment there isn’t much opposition as synthetic biology is only at the level of producing research findings and newspaper headlines for now, but when we start to see the first products coming to market this will reignite debate. The report heavily recommends that the public is well informed on developments and has a voice in how synthetic biology is applied, with an emphasis on respecting all perspectives whether they are scientific, environmental, religious or otherwise.

The report approaches the risks from new technology development sensibly; risk assessments, peer review and finding ways to fix problems that synthetic organisms might cause before they can be a problem. Built in suicide genes and nutritional dependence could be useful as standard means of preventing the escape of synthetic organisms, an example from fiction is in Jurassic Park where the dinosaurs are engineered to be lysine deficient, so that they couldn’t survive in the wild (unfortunately lysine is actually fairly common, so there were sequels). The need for intellectual freedom is mentioned; not only to make sure that useful technology is produced by synthetic biology, but also so that more effective safeguards can be developed in case of emergencies. It is interesting that the report also mentions the role that “DIYers” could play in synthetic biology; at present such specialized equipment is needed that the idea seems ridiculous, but one day (a long way away) this might change if genetic technologies become cheap enough.

My personal favorite of all the recommendations is about the public understanding of synthetic biology: Recommendation 15, Information accuracy. This recommends when presenting information on science to avoid “sensationalist buzzwords”, possibly having a private fact checking body and generally to make sure that the public knows the score on new technology. It wouldn’t only be a great thing for public understanding, but it might just save professional scientists, enthusiasts and technophiles from the hundreds of headaches they suffer each year caused by seeing science distorted, exaggerated, chewed up and spat out in the media!

Is this report really saying anything new? The intention to support research is in line with the current trend for investment in science to rebuild the economy. BIO president, Jim Greenwood, said in response to the report that the Biotechnology industry has already established voluntary guidelines for GMOs which cover the issue neatly. He makes a good point; this is not new ground and the industry guidelines would have been produced by those who know; the industries that use these technologies. In fact it might be fair to say the term “synthetic biology” wouldn’t exist if “genetic engineering” wasn’t a dirty word. What this report brings is the intention to more greatly involve the public and make the whole process more transparent for them; miscommunication about science and business can be a huge problem and so is the lack of trust it causes. To a lot of people, just mentioning “business interests” or “for profit” says corruption. There is always the chance with voluntary regulations, someone will opt out and that is a concern. The idea of government involvement in industry regulation would surely be more trusted by the public than the idea of industry regulating itself. 

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