Conservationists say it's high time to consider whether synthetic biology will solve some of the huge problems that beset endangered species, or bring new problems. It just might do both.
"Synthetic biology brings with it a powerful attraction, causing biology to veer towards engineering with its inherent approach of human problem solving," three experts on biodiversity and conservation say in this week's issue of PLOS Biology. "It may prove to be a cure for certain wicked problems. But we suggest that now is the time to consider whether synthetic biology may be a wicked solution, creating problems of its own, some of which may be undesirable or even unacceptable in the area of biodiversity conservation."
The PLOS Biology essay was written by Kent Redford of Archipelago Consulting, William Adams of the University of Cambridge, and Georgina Mace of University College London's Center for Biodiversity and Environment Research. The three conservationists are the organizers of a conference on synthetic biology, due to take place next week in Cambridge, England.
What is synthetic biology? Synthetic biology takes advantage of genetic engineering to tweak existing organisms for new purposes — for example, strains of E. coli bacteria that live on coffee, or produce better biofuels.
This month's conference takes a closer look at the scientific and ethical issues relating to conservation. Would de-extinction truly bring back the species that were wiped out, or will they actually be novel species, even alien species? How will revived species interact with the other species that have taken their place? Will we actually value the "natural" world less, because we assume de-extinction can bring back our favorites? What happens if synthetic life evolves in unforeseen ways? What's the implication of having patented life forms in the wild?
"A serious need exists for wider discussion of the relationship between synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation, and what choices society can and should make," the three experts say. But that poses a huge challenge, because many people haven't even heard of synthetic biology yet.
Plateau in awareness The latest in a series of surveys conducted for the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars suggests that public awareness about the issue is plateauing. Forty-five percent of those surveyed said that they had heard nothing at all about synthetic biology, which is about the same level of non-awareness found during the center's previous survey in 2010.
Lack of public awareness makes it difficult to conduct a wide-ranging debate over a technology's pros and cons, said Eleonore Pauwels, a research associate at the Wilson Center. "It is still at the stage of hype, and promises, and new funding coming in," she told NBC News. "When you don't have a lot of information, you only have the buzz or the hype."
The survey also found that 61 percent supported continuing research in synthetic biology, while 34 percent wanted such research banned until its implications and risks were better understood. "The more information you give to people, the more questions they're going to ask, and the debate becomes more complex," Pauwels said.
"If they get the antimalarial drug out of clinical trial soon, it's going to refuel the interest in synthetic biology as a new way of manufacturing drugs," Pauwels said.
What about manufacturing mammoths? Is synthetic biology a technology whose time has come? Or should experiments on the bleeding edge of genetic engineering be put on hold for a while, as they were in the 1970s? Feel free to cast your vote in our unscientific survey, and voice your opinion in the comment space below.
The Wilson Center's 2013 nationwide telephone survey on awareness and impressions of synthetic biology was conducted by Hart Research Associates from Jan. 10 to 14. Hart Research surveyed 804 adults, including 243 who use only a cell phone. At the 95 percent confidence level, the data's margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
A museum worker inspects a replica of a woolly mammoth, a species that went extinct 3,000 to 10,000 years ago. In March 2012, scientists in Russia and South Korea announced a partnership to try to clone the mammoth and generate a living specimen.
Such questions are the focus of TEDxDeExtinction, a public forum that's being presented on Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET at National Geographic's Washington headquarters. You can watch the whole thing online via LivestreamTEDx and National Geographic's De-Extinction website, which also has loads of articles and resources on the issue. The event has been organized by Revive & Restore, a nonprofit clearinghouse for worldwide de-extinction work that's under the aegis of the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco.
"De-extinction"? What's that?
"It's using new technologies like cloning and genome sequencing to reconstruct a species that went extinct," science writer Carl Zimmer explained. Zimmer's talk at Friday's TEDx event will help set the scene for the de-extinction debate, and he's also written a cover story on the topic for National Geographic's April issue.
National Geographic's cover story for the April issue focuses on the prospects of reviving ancient species.
De-extinction has been in the works for more than a decade, basically ever since Dolly the Sheep demonstrated in 1996 that mammals could be cloned from cells in a lab dish. Spanish and French scientists worked for years on an effort to bring the Pyrenean ibex back from extinction, by cloning cells that had been preserved from the last known animal of the species. They succeeded only in producing a deformed kid that died 10 minutes after birth.
That brief de-extinction (and re-extinction) took place in 2003 and was reported in 2009. Since then, significant advances have been made in cloning and in other technologies for DNA sequencing and gene splicing. That's allowed scientists to think about what previously was unthinkable. Russian and Korean researchers, for example, are looking through the tissue of a woolly mammoth that was preserved in the deep freeze of Siberia's permafrost, in hopes of finding cells that are suitable for cloning.
Harvard geneticist George Church, meanwhile, is working on a technique for inserting snippets of reconstructed DNA code from an extinct species into stem cells for a closely related living species. The coding for the traits of a passenger pigeon could be reintroduced, bit by bit, into a breed of common rock pigeon. Over the course of many generations, the rock pigeons would become more and more like passenger pigeons.
"George Church's method will open up a whole new range of possibilities," Zimmer said. "You're not actually grabbing an intact molecule that was inside an animal that was alive 1,000 years ago."
This type of reverse engineering could also open up a whole new range of questions. "Is a regular rock pigeon that's been given the traits that passenger pigeons had really a passenger pigeon, or is it a hybrid, or whatever?" Zimmer asked.
In a similar vein, plant researchers are sorting through the genome of Asian chestnut trees, with the intention of picking out the specific strings of DNA coding that can make American chestnuts more resistant to a species-killing fungus. The trick could save American chestnut trees from extinction, even though it's debatable whether they'd still be American chestnuts. "It's not the original thing, it's better," Zimmer said. "But should be we be doing that?"
It's not such a giant leap to think about looking through the Neanderthal genome as well, to find out whether it contains the coding for traits that could make humans "better." Church's reflections on that subject sparked all sorts of exaggerated reports a couple of months ago, replete with references to Neanderthal babies being spawned by human surrogate mothers-for-hire.
Zimmer said the last thing that Church and his colleagues want is a genetic free-for-all over de-extinction. "They want this to be something where there's a strong consensus," he said. "This is not an off-the-reservation project."
Friday's event could represent a significant step toward building that consensus. Watch the webcast and see for yourself. National Geographic's webcast portal includes the day's schedule.
Photographer Joel Sartore, one of the scheduled speakers at TEDxDeExtinction, has been documenting species on the brink of extinction for his Photo Ark project. Here are three of the species he has included in his portfolio. For more about Sartore, check out this Daily Nightly blog posting:
Joel Sartore / National Geographic
The golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) is a species native to mountainous forests of western China.
Joel Sartore / National Geographic
The striking panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) is native to tropical forests of Madagascar. The reptile is highly prized by collectors for its bold colors and relatively large body size (up to 9 inches or 23 centimeters long).
Joel Sartore / National Geographic
The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is the most rare subspecies of gray wolf in North America. It is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.
Neanderthals like the one depicted in this museum reconstruction died out tens of thousands of years ago, but geneticist George Church says it may be possible to bring their DNA back into the gene pool.
Pioneering Harvard geneticist George Church suggests that the day is coming when we'll want to reverse-engineer the Neanderthal genome and pass the now-extinct creatures' advantages to our own progeny. All that's needed would be an "extremely adventurous female human" to serve as a surrogate mother.
The species-resurrection scenario would involve inserting the reconstructed nuclear genetic material from the extinct creature into the living egg of a closely related present-day species, sparking the cell into dividing, and then implanting the resulting embryo into the womb of a female from the present-day species. It's been discussed in the context of using elephants to bring back mammoths, or chicken hens to bring back dinosaurs.
Technically speaking, the progeny wouldn't be a mammoth or a dinosaur, but rather an elephant or chicken exhibiting the genetic traits of their long-departed relatives. A similar technique could be applied using Neanderthal DNA: Chunks of reconstructed genetic code could be used to reprogram human cells and produce increasingly Neanderthal-like stem cells.
"If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal," Church told Der Spiegel. "We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone."
In the current political, ethical and technological climate, there's no way this scenario could come to pass. Researchers are closing in on a high-quality Neanderthal genome, but they're not quite there yet. The Russian and Korean scientists behind the mammoth-cloning project say they're years away from doing their experiment. And the idea of getting humans involved in cloning experiments is still the stuff of science fiction.
However, Church's point is that the Neanderthal genetic code may be so valuable that the hurdles will be worth overcoming.
"Neanderthals might think differently than we do," he told Der Spiegel. "We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial."
Theoretically, it might be possible to create a whole population of neo-Neanderthals and see how they differ from the usual breed of Homo sapiens, Church said.
"Curiosity may be part of it, but it's not the most important driving force," Church said. "The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the re-creation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance."
Does the idea of Neanderthal surrogate motherhood sound sensible when he puts it that way? Or does it still sound like a science-fiction nightmare? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
"We are already remaking ourselves and our world, retracing the steps of the original synthesis — redesigning, recoding and reinventing nature itself in the process," they write.
"Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves" is written by Harvard geneticist George Church and science writer Ed Regis.
"Regenesis" explores all these issues — the possibilities and the realities, the pros and the cons. Not even the sky is the limit: "We need to get at least some of our genomes and cultures off of this planet or trillions of person-years will be lost," Church and Regis write. They believe that biotechnology is the key to immortality, for the human species and perhaps for individual humans as well. But is all this a biotech pipe dream? I did a reality check during a telephone interview with Church this week. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: You’re setting forth quite a hopeful, positive vision in "Regenesis." The way you see it, the application of genetic engineering could get us to the transhumanist age. Are you trying to cast a positive vision as an inspirational goal, or do you feel that this is the realistic way that things will develop?
George Church: Well, it’s not entirely positive. I do describe potential pitfalls. But I feel that most of those pitfalls have solutions as well. It’s positive in the sense that I feel a number of things that often seem like impasses have win-win solutions if you dig deeply enough.
The book is not intended to be inspirational, although I think some people will find it to be so. It’s really intended to have some realism. For some of the points, it’s hard to say when they will arrive.
Q: In some of the areas you discuss, that future has already arrived. For example, you talk about how genetically engineered microbes are being used to turn plant products into plastics. People looking at their water bottles are probably seeing the first evidence of the revolution you describe, but what other innovations are just over the horizon?
A: There are some things that are happening in real time. For example, Joule Unlimited, one of the companies mentioned in the book, just announced a deal with Audi to produce biofuel. Biofuels Digest said this looks like the largest-scale and most realistic and near-term biofuel. The expected price is quoted at $1.28 a gallon. That’s converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into fuel. Other companies are working on similar processes, using the same bacteria, to produce food and other chemicals like plastics.
Many other things in the book are further off, but those are examples of things that are quite close. Multi-virus resistance is somewhere in between. We’ll see some progress on getting that out of laboratories and into industrial processes in the next couple of years.
A: Well before the Wilson Center became involved, I was one of the primary advocates for more regulation. This is probably not the attitude of most of my colleagues who are being regulated. My own lab is being regulated as well. I think that there are some areas where regulation could be a big burden, but generally speaking, I find it to be quite positive.
With the Food and Drug Administration, for example, I see a lot of things that still slip through. And most of the things that they block are just tiny increments. Most of the money that’s being spent is just to extend patents, or extend a monopoly that’s based on drug patents. I have similar feelings about the EPA.
What I was mainly asking for, in the early 2000s, was just licensing and surveillance. Everybody who practices synthetic biology should be licensed, including amateurs. Same as cars, right? You’re an amateur car driver, you get a license. Then you don’t assume that just because drivers have licenses, they’re going to behave themselves. You watch the roads, and do radar monitoring to catch speeders. There should be a similar arrangement for synthetic biology, where the stakes are higher.
As far as I know, nobody has ever died because of synthetic biology, while one million people die every year in automotive-related accidents. But I still think the stakes are quite high for synthetic biology.
A: Actually, in a way, I helped start that. The public should be more engaged in science, so that’s a healthy part of it. Do-it-yourself biology has not only synthetic components, but also analytic components. I would put more emphasis on studying your own genome than on synthesizing new ones. But anything that gets people engaged in science so they can make educated political and economic decisions is important. Right now we're making an awful lot of economically important decisions on technology that our leaders don’t understand, and even their staff doesn't understand.
"Genome: The Future Is Now" profiles Harvard's George Church.
Q: If you had five minutes with political leaders – at the White House, or in Congress – what’s the one thing that would you want them to understand better about synthetic biology?
A: They’re actually doing a fairly good job. They correctly perceive that this is the era of the bio-economy. ... I think there is a tendency to give in to lobbies. For example, even though many, many experts felt that going from corn to ethanol was a bad idea economically and scientifically, they still gave in to it. Now, during a drought year, they should be able to back away from that. But the corn lobby is powerful.
The policymakers understand that the bio-economy is on the rise. There’s almost nothing that we can’t make better and cheaper using biotechnology, including computers and all sorts of consumer goods and chemicals. But the details matter. I guess that’s what I’d use my five minutes for. It’s not sufficient to identify a major new thrust. It’s how you do it. There need to be more technical people in positions of power, and the people who are in power need to spend more time on the technical issues.
Q: Getting back to that issue of vision vs. reality, there’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about how the genomic revolution was oversold, and how applying the findings relating to the human genome has been harder than people thought. At the same time, we’re hearing about studies to nail down the genetic roots of all sorts of traits relating to wellness and illness. You’re involved in some of those studies. Do you feel as if the promise was there, and it just has taken longer than expected for the revolution to kick in? Or do you feel as if there was something that researchers missed in the first years of that revolution, which really needed to be present in order for the revolution to take off?
A: I don’t recall what was promised by whom. I certainly did not promise a particular time line for delivery of a particular amount of value to society. Battelle issued a report on the genome revolution, and claimed that there has already been a 140-fold return on investment – something around $700 billion. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions about that report. That was issued in 2011, so it was within a few years of when we said we were going to finish the project. When you get 140-to-1 return on your investment within just a few years, that strikes me as better than your average government decision-making process.
A lot of people have the misperception that the human genome sequence was complete in 2001, which was five years ahead of schedule, but it is still not complete. At least 2001 was the end of the "race," so to speak, so we then got serious about dropping the cost. The cost has dropped by a millionfold since then. You don’t get that in any other industry. If we had followed Moore’s Law, the prediction of an affordable human genome would have been in 2040. Actually, we have an affordable genome, by many people’s standards, today.
That gets us to a second misperception: People think either that we don’t have an affordable genome, or that the genome we have is not useful. I would maintain that there’s not a person on the planet who’s getting standard medical care, who shouldn’t get their genome sequenced.
It may be that for quite a few of those people, the genome would come back and say, “You’re pretty healthy. You’ll die eventually, but we don’t know what you’ll die of.” That will be the report for many people. But you don’t know if you’re one of those people in advance. You don’t know if you’re going to have a fire or have a car accident before you get fire or accident insurance. But you do it anyway, just because the consequences of not having insurance could be catastrophic to the economy of your family. Similarly, the consequences of getting one of these diseases, which can be influenced by your genes, is catastrophic to your family. So why take the risk? It’s only $4,000, after all.
I think it’s come down to the point where the quality is high, the cost is low, and the interpretability is high. Not for everything, but for some medical issues. I can’t think of a reason why someone with decent health care and income shouldn’t be sequenced today.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about the $1,000 genome as a crucial price point, and you mentioned $4,000. Considering how far it’s come, from billions of dollars, how do you expect the price curve to develop over the next year, two years or five years?
A: I was one of the people who promoted, as a goal, the $1,000 to $10,000 genome. I wasn’t specific on where in that range it should be, but it should be something that’s affordable over a lifetime. People locked into the $1,000 number, which I don’t think is the best number, but anyway … I think what will happen is that it’ll plateau somewhere around where it is right now, and the quality of interpretation will continue to improve.
That’s similar to the experience we had when computers came out of the stratosphere and the cost fell to thousands of dollars. People still buy computers for thousands of dollars; they’re just way, way better. But $1,000 is definitely attractive both for a computer and a genome. The difference is, you throw away your computer after three or four years. The genome, you keep for 80 years or however long you’ve got left.
So I think within the next year or two, the cost will probably stay at $4,000, but you’ll get better quality of interpretation, better software. There are some technologies over the horizon that may bring the price down to hundreds of dollars over the next two to five years. I know they’re coming. But this is one of those places where there’s enough of a pause in this breathtaking curve that it’s a good time to think seriously about it. It’s just like whenever the latest iPhone or Android comes out, that’s when you want to make the decision – rather than waiting forever, because everything keeps improving.
Q: Do you think we’ll see all sorts of products on the market for genome analysis, like iPhone vs. Android vs. Nokia vs. iTouch? Will there have to be a lot of consumer education about the various products?
A: Having the choices we have now for computers and cellphones is a wonderful problem to have. I think there will be multiple genomic products as well. But the main reason for consumer education is not necessarily deciding which method you want. Right now, the highest-quality genome available, which I think is ready for clinical applications, is from Complete Genomics. People will need "Consumer Reports" types of independent comparative assessments, so they can judge this for themselves.
But even more important, they need to be educated about the benefits and risks of looking at particular parts of the genome, so they get educated in advance about what they’re looking for.
To some extent, this was also needed for other technologies. For cars, you need to have driver’s ed. For computers, well, there should have been more instruction than there was. The fire hose of the Internet was opened on humanity in 1993, when we went from virtually zero websites to millions in one year, and nobody was prepared. Nobody really said, “Here’s a one-page description of all the risks out there – there’s identity theft, there’s fraud, spam, hackers, trafficking of illegal material, etc.” People just blithely said, “That’s the price of being in the Wild West.”
The more powerful the technology, the more important it is to have that kind of education, and to have licensing and surveillance as well.
Q: So, other than reading “Regenesis,” what would you suggest that we do to get educated?
A: Specifically for personal genomics, there is an organization called pgEd.org that’s focusing on educating the public, including high schools.
There’s another popular book called “Here Is a Human Being,” by Misha Angrist, which is fun for getting an anecdotal description.
To some extent, the best thing to do is to jump in and get your genome done. You could start with one of the cheaper services, but the problem is if you start with a cheap service and you don’t actually learn anything, you might not go on.
People will figure it out. There will be an increasing number of Web resources to lead you through this.
Someday, genetic code may be as downloadable and potentially shareable as email, thanks to devices that can translate biological material into digital files, and vice versa. That's the vision that J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, laid out last week at Trinity College Dublin as part of Euroscience Open Forum 2012.
Venter's talk — titled "What Is Life?" — was intended as a follow up on physicist Erwin Schrödinger's 1943 lecture in Dublin on the same topic. That earlier lecture was seen as foreshadowing the age of genetics and the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure a decade later. Venter's talk sketched out a 21st-century vision in which the code of life is seen as merely another kind of software.
"All living cells that we know of on this planet are 'DNA software'-driven biological machines comprised of hundreds of thousands of protein robots, coded for by the DNA, that carry out precise functions," New Scientist quoted Venter as saying. "We are now using computer software to design new DNA software."
Venter said he and his colleagues are now designing the software for three different types of microbial organisms. Once the digital designs are finished, they'll be fed into DNA sequencing machines to create the corresponding chemical code. The genetic software would then be inserted into hollowed-out cells to kick-start the machinery of life. "I am hoping it will happen this year," the Irish Times quoted Venter as saying.
His aim is to produce microbes that are custom-designed create biofuel, foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals. Using today's technology, researchers can collaborate on genetic design by converting the four-base code of a DNA molecule into a standardized digital file and then sending the file to another lab, where it's converting back into DNA molecules. Venter talked of developing a miniaturized digital-biological converter that could do the trick, Forbes India reported. The concept could lead to technologies that streamline the creation of synthetic organisms, just as 3-D printers are streamlining the creation of synthetic shapes.
"This is biology moving at the speed of light," Venter said.
Can policymakers keep pace? A progress report from the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars suggests that's debatable. Today the project updated its "Synthetic Biology Scorecard," saying that federal agencies have started taking steps to address a set of policy recommendations issued 18 months ago — but haven't yet fully addressed any of those recommendations.
On the plus side, federal officials have set up an interagency working group on synthetic biology, have participated in international meetings on the issues surrounding synthetic biology, and have drawn up a National Bioeconomy Blueprint. But the project says there's been no federal activity to review public funding for synthetic biology research, assess the risks associated with releasing synthetic organisms outside the lab, or evaluate moral objections to the technology.
Will synthetic biology open the door to a brave new world? An ethical and environmental morass? Both, or neither? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Someday, microbiomes just might give us a world where crude oil is grown like a crop, where vaccines for new flu strains can be produced in days instead of months, and where physicians can tweak the bacteria in your gut to cure what ails you. At least that's the promise held out by genomics pioneer Craig Venter and others at a symposium conducted this week at Seattle's Institute for Systems Biology.
A decade ago, Venter was among a cadre of researchers who first decoded the human genome — in Venter's case, his own. Today, as the head of the J. Craig Venter Institute, he's among a cadre of researchers who are not only working out the implications of that genetic code for our daily lives, but also studying how to tweak the genetic codes of the myriad microbes that surround us — and in some cases, live within us. The makeup of those microbial communities is what scientists refer to a "microbiome."
A decade ago, the main challenge facing geneticists was to translate the "analog" information of cellular chemistry into a digital database, Venter told attendees. Today, the main challenge is to reverse course and make the "digital to analog" conversion, so that innovations in genetic code can be applied to the real world.
How's that done? Venter and his colleagues made a start on that task just a few years ago, by pioneering a process to synthesize DNA and insert it into a strain of bacteria. The daughter cells reflected the artificially altered programming instead of their forebears' natural genetic code.
Now Venter and others are putting synthetic biology to work. Here are just a few of the examples cited at the Seattle symposium, titled "Systems Biology and the Microbiome":
Several commercial ventures, including Sapphire Energy, are tweaking algae to produce oil-like compounds at a price that's cheaper than the cost of crude oil. Sapphire CEO Jason Pyle pointed out that based purely on commodity costs, corn is a cheaper energy source than oil (though not as cheap as natural gas). If genetically modified algae could be grown in mass quantities as cheaply as corn, it could become a renewable energy source that's much closer to carbon-neutral than fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide could come to be seen as "the raw material of the future," Venter said.
From 2010: Algae fuel start-ups across the country are getting closer to commercial scale production of the environmentally friendly fuel, thanks to investment from the government.
Algae strains could also be reprogrammed to produce foodstuffs, Venter said. Such genetic twists could outpace today's chemical-heavy agricultural methods, which are increasingly being seen as too wasteful for the planet's rising population. "Ultimately, the elimination of agriculture as we know it should be a goal of modern science," Venter said. However, harnessing synthetic algae cells is "not a short-term project," he cautioned.
Unraveling the human microbiome, particularly in our digestive system,. ranks among the top priorities for microbiologists. Physicians are already experimenting with "fecal transplants" — a gross-sounding procedure that involves injecting material from a donor's intestines into the gut of a patient who needs a healthier bacterial community. Having your digestive bacteria analyzed, and tweaked if necessary, may someday become part of a routine physical. (However, MIT's Eric Alm noted that it wouldn't have to be done annually, because your gut's microbiome doesn't usually change that quickly.)
The bacteria in our bowels may even play a role in space exploration: If we ever get to the point of sending astronauts to Mars, Venter said one of the first items on the agenda should be to replace the astronauts' Earth-centric gut bacteria with a selection more suited to the Mars trip. Venter has said other bacteria cold be engineered to create fuel and food from raw materials on Mars, including the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere.
This all sounds like a science-fiction utopia, but some believe there's the potential for a sci-fi nightmare instead. Last month, an international environmental consortium called for a moratorium on the commercial use of synthetic organisms, and an outright ban on the application of synthetic biology to the human genome or the human microbiome.
"It is our obligation to safeguard the future, to be wise in our development and use of technologies which could threaten humans and the Earth," said Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. The results of an online survey on synthetic biology are due to be released next month.
What do you think about the idea using genetically altered microbes to produce fuel, food and medicine? Is it a panacea, a Pandora's Box, or something in between? Feel free to register your opinion in the online poll above, or in the comment space below.
Scientists took a type of bacteria known as Mycoplasma capricolum and transplanted a custom-written version of the genome from a different type of bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides. The synthetic genome included coding for the production of a blue compound, which served here as a signal that the bacteria were "synthetic cells."
More than 100 environmental and social-action groups say synthetic organisms shouldn't be sent out into the world until governments create a new framework to regulate them. Their recommendations for such a framework are outlined in a statement of principles issued today.
Critics, however, say that the technology could lead to environmental hazards of Frankensteinian proportions, including new strains of unstoppable invasive species and unpredictable hazards to human health. The 111 groups behind today's statement, including Friends of the Earth, the International Center for Technology Assessment and the ETC Group, are on the critical side of the spectrum.
"We are calling for a global moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until we have established a public interest research agenda, examined alternatives, developed the proper regulations and put into place rigorous biosafety measures," Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a news release. "It is our obligation to safeguard the future, to be wise in our development and use of technologies which could threaten humans and the Earth."
The groups call for an outright ban on the use of synthetic biology on the human genome, or on the human microbiome — that is, the wide assortment of microbes that are found inside us or on our skin. They say the current systems in place to regulate genetic engineering are inadequate for the task ahead.
"Self-regulation of the synthetic biology industry simply won't work. Current laws and regulations around biotechnology are outdated and inadequate to deal with the novel risks posed by synthetic biology technologies and their products," said Andy Kimbrell, executive director of the International Center for Technology Assessment.
The debate over synthetic biology has intensified since geneticist J. Craig Venter and his colleagues announced the development of the "first synthetic cell" in 2010. In the wake of that announcement, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues said there was no need to halt research into synthetic biology or establish an entirely new regulatory framework. Instead, the commission called for a combination of industry self-regulation, closer coordination by existing regulatory agencies and further research into the potential for risk.
When that report was released, the ETC Group's Jim Thomas said it was "disappointingly empty and timid." Thomas' group is one of the principal backers of the proposed principles issued today.
A spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization told ScienceInsider's Elizabeth Pennisi that the principles issued today were not helpful to policymakers or the public, due to "the shrillness of its tone and its lack of objectivity." He said "there are a lot of safeguards in place" today, while acknowledging that the existing regulations may eventually need to be upgraded.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has established its own project to study the policy implications of synthetic biology. One of the leaders of that project, senior research associate Todd Kuiken, told me that the principles issued today were "not that much different" from the presidential commission's recommendations, although he said the tone was a bit more strident. "The word 'moratorium' is a little strong," he said.
"There are potential risks there, and we need to look at these issues before we start putting these things out there," Kuiken said. "I don't think anything they said is that surprising to folks, nor is the response from industry that surprising."
The center's Synthetic Biology Project has voiced concern about the implications of genetic technology for the past 18 months. In a recent Nature commentary, Kuiken and four colleagues urged scientists and officials to take additional steps to avoid "a synthetic-biology disaster."
"Public agencies must link basic and environmental risk research by co-funding projects and requiring grant recipients to work with environmental agencies from the start," they wrote. "Given the complexity of the research questions, the economic and social value of successful synthetic-biology applications and the potential impact of errors, we think that a minimal investment of $20 million to $30 million over 10 years is appropriate."
Today, the Synthetic Biology Project is kicking off an online survey to gauge public opinion on the ethical, legal and social implications synthetic biology. The center said results from the survey would be compiled into a report to be released in May. To take the survey, click here. But first, register your opinion in our own unscientific poll at right.