Synthetic biology combines science and engineering methodologies to create new biological systems and functions not found in the natural environment. The emerging trend of applying the principles of genetic engineering to modify existing life forms or generate new ones has fomented heated international debates. People on both sides of the issue make very strong arguments to support their positions.
The Great Potential of Synthetic Biology Research
No one can deny that synthetic biology research holds great promise and potential across a broad spectrum of fields including medicine, agriculture, and industry. Scientists have had some success in producing biofuels from synthetic organisms. Another promising application resulting from the generation of new life forms is bioremediation of pollutants’environmental clean up. Researchers claim that synthetically engineered microorganisms have potential to produce vaccines far more rapidly than traditional methods and can produce bio-engineered drugs that target cancer tumors, killing them without damaging healthy tissue as occurs with chemotherapy and radiation therapies.
The Moral and Ethical Implications of Synthetic Biology Research
Introducing a new life form, whether deliberate or accidental into earth’s fragile, complex and highly interdependent ecosystem could have devastating effects on all naturally occurring organisms. Engineered microorganisms, like those occurring naturally, have the ability to replicate and adapt to a variety of environmental conditions. One valid concern is that one or more of these organisms may accidentally escape the laboratory and reproduce out of control. Deliberate release of organisms that scientists generated for applied purposes may inadvertently cause damaging side effects. Many who vigorously oppose this type of research fear that potentially deadly synthetic organisms may fall into the hands of terrorist groups and rogue nations.
The field of synthetic biology has progressed rapidly, while keeping a low profile and staying out of the consciousness of the general public. Consequently, there was no one around to debate the ethical and moral implications of such research. Many think that things have moved too far ahead to impose a moratorium on the research, even if it seemed warranted. Additionally, unlike other advanced methodologies and disciplines, this discipline has no regulatory oversight and has operated within the confines of cloistered laboratories. A considerable number of discoveries and new technologies with great potential to address societal needs also have significant potential to harm and even destroy life and ecosystems. The answer lies not in halting research in these areas of study, but by taking the initiative to author and implement policy and security measures meant to mitigate the potential for harm.
What measures and policies can the scientific community adopt to reduce potential for the misuse of discoveries borne out of the exciting new field of synthetic biology? How can the scientific community assure the public that their research protocols and methodologies adequately follow these measures and policies?