Scientists create 'synthetic life,' fuel debate over bioethics
Scientists have created an artificial genome and inserted it into a bacteria cell, creating the first synthetic life. The goal of the project is to design microbes for energy or health applications.
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Even as the science of synthetic biology has evolved, so has the discussion of implications of this field, notes Gregory Kaebnick, an research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in Garrison, N.Y.Skip to next paragraph
Yet at this stage, he says, the nascent technology may raise hackles unnecessarily.
"I'm very sympathetic about concerns over how biotechnology may change the human relationship with nature," he says. "Synthetic biology can look like the culmination of the threat biotechnology can pose" to this relationship.
"But to my lights it doesn't pose a serious threat," he adds. Up to now, synthetic biology has focused on microbes, not complex organisms like plants or cows. "And the things we are doing to them are restricted to industrial uses," he adds.
Moreover, the aim is to simplify the genomes so that organisms spend most of their energy on producing the products -- fuels, pharmaceuticals, pollution-clean-up agents, for instance. Removing all but the most essential genes makes the organisms less adaptable to stress, and so less able to survive outside of a carefully controlled environment, Dr. Kaebnick says.
Still, taking advantage of any benefits from crossing the threshold from swapping "natural" genes among living organisms to designing synthetic genomes will require that scientists pay close attention to public concerns, according to David Ropeik, a risk-management consultant and former instructor on risk at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Because many of the developments leading to Thursday's announcement have remained fairly low on the public's radar screen, he says he anticipates that Venter's latest results could trigger the kind of public outcry that led researchers in the 1970s to place a temporary moratorium on gene-splicing research, then in its infancy. Leaders in the field met to work out a set of "how we need to be careful" protocols for conducting the work, Mr. Ropeik recalls.
That act alone, he says, signaled that researchers recognized and respected public concerns about the work they were undertaking.
The same is needed today, he says.
"What's really important for all the progress this work promises is that people's concerns be taken seriously and get factored in to how scientists behave and proceed," he says.
Venter notes that his group has been briefing politicians and regulators along the way, and the work has been reviewed by ethicists, including Dr. Caplan.
But the efforts may now have to be played out on a larger stage, and the work may need some self-imposed limits.
A report on synthetic biology produced by the University of Nottngham's Institute for Science and Society in Britain noted that "it must be recognised that ... some ethically problematic scientific projects and potentially controversial technologies may have to be abandoned in order to maintain trust."