Recent Fear and Loathing in Synthetic Biology Reminiscent of Other Biotechnologies
As novel scientific achievements such as recombinant DNA technology, stem cells, and most recently, synthetic biology, exit the lab and merge with the outside world, fear has followed them. This fear factor has influenced public perception of most novel scientific endeavors.
Biotechnophobia seems to stem from the fact that the risk is human-made. People are less worried about natural risks, David Ropeik, founder and principal of Ropeik and Associates, a risk management consultancy, wrote in The Guardian.
“Nature can indeed be red in tooth and claw, but new versions of plants, animals, and microorganisms that evolve via Darwinian evolution don’t upset us half as much as hybridization by genetic engineering.” We will need to understand and come to terms with factors that bias our risk perceptions, Ropeik warned, or we may fail to exploit breakthroughs like synthetic life.
There are indeed organizations to assess risk and monitor potential hazards associated with biotechnologies. In October 1974, NIH established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) to respond to public anxiety about the safety of manipulating genetic material through the use of recombinant DNA techniques.
NIH has assessed its “Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA” with regard to synthetic biology and found that the distinction between recombinant and synthetic techniques is immaterial in discerning the need for biosafety oversight. Rather it is the biological attributes of the final product that should be taken into account. As part of the assessment it amended the guidelines document to include nucleic acids that are synthesized chemically without the use of recombinant technology.
Yet, as recently as March 13, a group of 111 watchdog organizations including ETC Group and Friends of the Earth issued a report saying that current practices for regulating and assessing biotechnology were inadequate. They called synthetic biology “an extreme form of genetic engineering” and asked for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms and their products.
The excitement over synthetic biology resurfaced on reports in May 2010 of the development of a “synthetic cell,” although only the genome was synthetic. Dr. Venter and his team reported that they had assembled a 1.08 mega base pair Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome using digitized genome sequence information. The scientists transplanted the genome into a M. capricolum recipient cell to create new M. mycoides cells controlled only by the synthetic chromosome.
Reactions to the artificial cell, named “Synthia” by its developers, were exemplified by newspaper headlines like…