October 11, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Another Thing to Worry About: Synthetic Biology

Philip Ball is no alarmist, but as consultant editor of Nature,1 he had sobering words last week about things that could go wrong in the new field of synthetic biology, where scientists are tinkering with cells to create artificial life forms:

The expanding toolbox of ways to re-engineer microbes – and even construct new ones – has opened up extraordinary possibilities for biomedical discovery and environmental engineering.  But it also carries potential dangers that could eclipse the concerns already raised about genetic engineering and nanotechnology.  If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge.

Humans are taking existing design to new levels.  “Synthetic biology,” Ball explains, is the logical corollary of the realization that cells, like mechanical or electronic devices, are exquisitely ‘designed’ – albeit by evolution rather than on the drawing board.  Their functions are enacted by circuits of interacting genes.”  But can we trust humans putting them back on the drawing board?  He gives some nightmare scenarios:

  • Artificial disease:  “In a dramatic demonstration of the potential risks, virologist Eckard Wimmer at the State University of New York at Stony Brook announced in 2002 that his team had built live poliovirus from scratch using mail-order segments of DNA and a viral genome map that is freely available on the Internet.  The feat put a spotlight on the possibility that bioterrorists could create even more dangerous organisms – including Ebola, smallpox and anthrax – perhaps endowing them with resistance to antibiotics.”  Wimmer’s feat took three years, but last November, Craig Venter took only three weeks to concoct a virus that infects bacteria.  And soon, synthetic bacteria themselves may move from concept to reality.
  • New living things:  “And researchers are getting close to determining the smallest set of genes necessary to support a living cell, which might make it possible to cook up new life forms.”
  • New molecular machines:  “In a parallel development, other researchers have been tinkering with the building blocks of genes and proteins themselves.  Naturally occurring proteins are built from a standard set of 20 amino acids.  Although these are enough to produce protein chains with a staggering array of functions, expanding this repertoire might enable the design of biomolecules with new functions, such as protein-based drugs that resist being broken down in cells.”  Already, some 80 unconventional amino acids have been artificially incorporated into proteins.
  • New genetic codes:  Steven Benner has gotten DNA to incorporate an unnatural base pair.  He said, “I suspect that, in five years or so, the artificial genetic systems that we have developed will be supporting an artificial life form that can reproduce, evolve, learn and respond to environmental change.  This will help define how life not of earthly origin might appear”.
  • New circuitry:  “But building a new bacterial genome is not just a matter of chemistry – you have to design the circuitry too,” Ball says, and that’s just what some researchers are attempting. 
  • Bioterrorism:  “An unclassified report by the CIA released last November warned that synthetic biology could produce engineered agents ‘worse than any disease known to man’…,” he says.
  • Unintentional Risks:  Probably riskier than bioterrorism is human errorism.  “It is much harder to anticipate the unintentional dangers of synthetic biology,” Ball says.  “For example, if new strains of bacteria were developed with unprecedented capabilities, how could they be kept under control?”  Even those that have been designed with built-in self-destruct mechanisms have apparently mutated around them.
  • Unanticipated Risks:  “Yet as synthetic biology develops, it will be hard to anticipate all the possible problems, whether malevolent or inadvertent.”  How can we protect ourselves against the unknown, when the “repertoire over the coming decade is limitless”?

In 1975, scientists held a summit at Asilomar, California, to “voluntarily forego” certain kinds of research on recombinant DNA, and institute “safety measures to prevent abuses of new techniques” that might go awry.  Is a new summit overdue?  There is some self-policing going on, but safety might be a casualty of the promise of great discoveries, carelessness, curiosity or the desire to be first.
    In addition, the threat of bioterrorism is as real as the memories of 9/11.  Either by stealing materials or learning how to do it themselves, there are groups who would have no qualms about unleashing deadly agents that could not only resist our defenses, but turn out to be uncontainable.  Ball says that for the time being, safety protocols are “informal” because no one can properly understand the issues or assess the threats well enough to formalize any policies, let alone enforce them:

Synthetic biology is now raising the bar.  Should limits be set on what is attempted?  If so, what should they be and how should they be enforced?  And what steps can be taken to ensure that a rogue organization, or even a state-sponsored bioweapons programme, does not use the technology to synthesize a dangerous microbe?

Meanwhile, “into the unknown” march the researchers into this risky yet promising new field, with the public largely unaware of what is going on.  Ball ends his article with more apprehension than hope.  “Sooner or later, synthetic biology may find itself facing dangers that are far more than hypothetical.  As [bioterrorism expert George] Poste puts it: ‘Biology is poised to lose its innocence.’


1Philip Ball, “Synthetic biology: Starting from scratch,” Nature 431, 624 – 626 (07 October 2004); doi:10.1038/431624a.

Would you trust a Darwinist, who can say with a straight face, “cells, like mechanical or electronic devices, are exquisitely ‘designed“ … by evolution” (Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week) to have any moral sense?  [Dumb Ideas.]  Would you trust an unethical scientist somewhere, with eyes on a Nobel prize, or winning a race against a competitor, or getting a big payoff from someone, to be overly concerned about safety, let alone ethics?  Big Science resists any political restraints on their work.  They like to think they can police themselves.   Most scientists are conscientious and ethical, but it just takes one that’s not, and these nightmare scenarios become tomorrow’s reality.  Only ethics based on loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourself will stand the test of time.
    For those who trust God and his word, there is comfort commensurate to any threat, local or global (for example, read Psalms 144-147).  The reason for that comfort is the confidence that the Creator of the world is in control.  He understands DNA because He invented it.  Scientists might make a superbug that resists all our defenses, but God can – and will – override man’s worst.  He is not going to let the world that He formed to be inhabited (see Isaiah 45) be wiped out by man’s mistakes, and the future of this planet is in his hands.  That doesn’t mean we should stop fighting evil and working for peace and safety.  It does not mean we should forego pursuing good uses of science and technology, even though there is risk.  But no matter what comes, even if global terror threatens, our trust should be in the Lord, not in scientists, summits, national defense or human promises to be good.  There is only one reliable source of help for mankind.  “I will lift up my eyes to the hills– From whence comes my help?  My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth….The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul.  The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore” (Psalm 121).

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