Synthetic Biology

Floating single cell organisms in black liquid

Synthetic biology is a new discipline that lies at the interface of information technology and molecular developmental biology. It aims to apply rational engineering principles to the creation of biological organisms, sub-systems or their components. Synthetic biology is rapidly emerging as one of the most promising fields of science and technology, with the potential to deliver enormous benefits in areas such as pharmaceuticals, energy, agriculture, pollution and climate change. Significant milestones achieved in the field to date include the de novo synthesis of functional viruses, the creation of a novel lineage of bacterium from a wholly synthetic bacterial genome, and the compiling of a registry of ‘standard biological parts’ which synthetic biologists aim to use as the building blocks for synthetic organisms and sub-systems designed for a wide range of human purposes. In the not too distant future, it is likely that humans will be able to engage in the large-scale design and creation of forms of life that have never existed on this planet and which are exquisitely tailored for human purposes. The proliferation of potentially inexpensive synthetic life technology, including the capacity for digital design and manufacture of DNA sequences from scratch, raises a number of social and ethical issues.

Concerns raised to date include that release of synthetic life forms might unintentionally damage existing ecosystems, that the creation of life by synthetic biologists is a particularly problematic form of 'playing God', and that synthetic biology might encourage reductionistic views about life, perhaps by undermining our everyday distinction between living things and machines.

Arguably, though, the most important concern, at least in the short to medium term, relates to the intentional misuse of synthetic biology. There exists the possibility that synthetic biologists will discover new and much less resource- and expertise-intensive ways of synthesizing known human pathogens, such as the smallpox virus. Small groups, or even rogue individuals, might then be able to create dangerous biological weapons. Synthetic biologists might also acquire the ability to produce pathogens more dangerous than any that have so far existed. Certain kinds of progress in synthetic biology could thus elevate the risk of devastating biological attacks, whether by terrorists of state-sponsored militaries. A challenge is to reduce this risk without foregoing beneficial applications of synthetic biology. 

Further into the future, it is possible that synthetic biology might create issues relating to the proper treatment of synthetic entities. Though in the short term synthetic biologists are unlikely to produce biological systems much more complex than plants or bacterial colonies, in the longer term they may be able to produce highly sophisticated and unusual 'organisms'. Imagine a biological computer constructed from synthetic human nerve cells. It might be extremely difficult to ascertain how such an entity ought to be treated by people. Could such a machine be used merely as an instrument to satisfy our own goals, as we would use an ordinary computer? Or would it be owed some kind of respect?



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