Fabricating life

Nov 2014    

According to an article in the May issue of The Scientist, an international team of researchers has successfully synthesised from scratch one of the sixteen chromosomes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Despite altering one-sixth of its base pairs, the scientists found that the yeast cells from artificial chromosome SynIII were indistinguishable from the original version. Tom Ellis from Imperial College, London, who is one of the researchers, opined that this discovery is “a landmark in synthetic biology”.

Synthetic biology may be best described as the application of engineering principles to biology, with the view not only of redesigning an existing living system but also creating novel ones. “Synthetic biologists,” writes Markus Schmidt, the founder of Biofaction, “use artificial molecules to reproduce emergent behaviour from the natural biology, with the goal of creating artificial life or seeking interchangeable biological parts to assemble them into devices and systems that function in a manner not found in nature.”

The public face of synthetic biology is geneticist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, the founder of Synthetic Genomics, a private company whose mission is to engineer new forms of life. In 2010, scientists at the Craig Venter Institute created the world’s first synthetic life form at the cost of more than US$40 million in what has been described as “a defining moment in biology”.

Scientists maintain that the promise of synthetic biology is truly staggering. In the field of biomedicine, scientists could develop complex molecular devices for tissue regeneration, smart drugs and personalised medicine. Scientists could also offer creative solutions to the world’s energy issues by manufacturing custom-made microbes for creating fuels and for performing artificial photosynthesis. Synthetic organisms could be used to detect and remove pollutants from the environment.

Theologians and ethicists have raised a number of grave concerns surrounding this new science.

One of the major concerns has to do with ‘bio-security’ as the new technology could be used to create bacteria or viruses for military or terrorist purposes.

Although some commentators argue that given the complexity and cost of synthetic biology, such abuses are unlikely to occur, the fact remains that with this new technology, the work of ‘bioweaponeers’ has become much easier.

In 2003, the classified US CIA document entitled ‘The Darker Bioweapons Future’ stated that: “Growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents to be engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects.”

Synthetic biology is accompanied by all the conundrums associated with dual-use technologies: the same science, that may treat some of the worst diseases, could also be used to create some of the most terrible weapons.

Another major concern has to do with safety issues (‘bio-errorism’). There is the risk that the artificial organisms produced in the laboratory may develop unexpected properties that are detrimental to human health.

There is also the risk that these synthetic, self-replicating entities may be accidentally introduced to the natural environment. Moreover, these novel, artificial microbes that enter the environment may evolve, developing properties not found in nature which may cause untold damage to the ecosystem.

One important way to prevent both ‘bioterrorism’ and ‘bio-errorism’ is to achieve the right balance between self-governance within the scientific community and statutory regulations. But, as some commentators have pointed out, given the widespread availability of synthetic biology tools, regulating this new science would prove challenging.

In June 2006, The Guardian announced that one of its journalists was able to purchase a fragment of synthetic DNA of Variola major (the virus that causes smallpox) from a commercial gene synthesis company in the UK without having to undergo any screening process.

According to Richard H. Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers University, it would now be possible for a person “to produce a full-length 1918 influenza virus or Ebola virus genomes, along with kits containing detailed procedures and other materials for the reconstruction … it is possible to advertise and sell the product”.

Reflecting on the profound risks surrounding this young science, Philip Ball, the consultant editor of Nature, writes: “If ever there were a science guaranteed to cause public alarm and outrage, this is it. Compared with conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering, the risks involved in synthetic biology are far scarier.”

“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


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