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The Bio-Brick Revolution

By Michael Cook

While synthetic biology promises benefits such as glow-in-the dark trees that replace city lights, there are many more sinister applications that have many people worried.

A small American start-up company recently raised nearly half a million dollars through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in order to use synthetic biology to create “sustainable natural lighting” – plants that glow in the dark. According to the pitch, councils could make major savings by planting luminescent trees instead of paying for street lamps.

Or at least that’s the long-term vision.

But synthetic biology is no gimmick. It’s a new form of engineering that uses “bio-bricks” to create new biological systems. It could revolutionise medicine, food production and energy production.

It is already a burgeoning industry, and by 2016 the world market for synbio products could be as much as US$16 billion. “There’s not a single aspect of human life that doesn’t have the potential to be totally transformed by these technologies in the future,” says biotechnology magnate J. Craig Venter.

An example is the best way to explain it. Arsenic-laced groundwater is a huge health problem in Bangladesh. Some researchers have taken luminescence genes from fireflies and arsenic-sensing genes from other microorganisms, and inserted them into a bacterium. When the bacteria are added to water, they glow in proportion to the concentration of arsenic in the water. This simple test could save countless lives.

That is just one of thousands of possible applications. Registers of genes for thousands of functions are being compiled so that they can be ordered like car parts. The cost of all the steps is dropping rapidly, making it possible for amateurs to engage in “biohacking”.

The promise and the perils of synthetic biology are obvious.

On the one hand, for example, it will be possible to create cheap drugs. Scientists at Berkeley have already engineered bacteria to produce a partially synthetic version of artemisinin, a chemical that is critical to manufacturing the best current antimalaria drug.

But the same technology could also be used to engineer a more virulent strain of influenza. It could be the perfect weapon for a well-educated terrorist.

So the ethics of synthetic biology are being hotly debated. At one extreme are libertarian technophiles who dismiss fears of contaminated food chains and epidemics as scaremongering. “Biopunks deplore restrictions on independent research, for the right to arrive independently at an understanding of the world around oneself is a fundamental human right,” says biohacker Meredith Patterson.

At the other extreme are conservatives who worry about playing God with these new biological tools and are skeptical of the motives of bio-entrepreneurs. “Synthetic biology, the next wave of genetic engineering, allows seed, pesticide and oil companies to redesign life so that they can make more money from it,” says Vananda Shiva, an Indian environmental activist.

There are several areas of concern.

Biosecurity is a major issue. Governments are wary of the weaponising potential of synbio products, but controlling them is difficult. There may have to be regulation of commercial suppliers of DNA to ensure that dangerous DNA sequences are supplied only to legitimate users.

Environmental issues worry campaigners against genetically modified foods. As synbio products are often completely novel, they might run out of control if they escaped from a laboratory. What impact will glow-in-the-dark trees have on the ecology?

There are philosophical issues as well. We all agree that we should protect biodiversity as a fundamental principle of our stewardship of the planet, but should we increase the number of species artificially? Are living organisms just machines that can be disassembled and reassembled? Such concerns may seem abstract, but scientists need to have convincing answers. GM food is already controversial. How will the public react when they are faced with trees that glow in the dark?

Equity and access to synbio products is an obvious issue that affects patent law and ownership. If the components are not manufactured but discovered in nature, who can claim to own them?

And can we trust scientists to work in the public interest? Most of them, of course, but there will always be a rogue

Dr Frankenstein so how should the field be regulated?

Bio-conservatives have published a manifesto in which they demand that “governmental bodies, international organizations and relevant parties must immediately implement strong precautionary and comprehensive oversight mechanisms”. But when President Obama asked his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to study the issue, it cautiously recommended a hands-off approach.

But everyone familiar with synthetic biology agrees on one thing: that it will become one of the major industries of the 21st century. We all need to be prepared for a debate that could eventually be as contentious as climate change.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.