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Synthetic biology stokes fear and expectation

Synthetic biology researcher Drew Endy holding sections of DNA known as BioBricks Keystone

Scientists, biosafety and ethics experts have met in Geneva to discuss the potential benefits and risks of the new scientific field of synthetic biology.

This content was published on February 27, 2006 - 11:19

Only in its infancy, the technology offers hope in areas such as medicine and environmental protection but there are fears it could be hijacked by bioterrorists to build deadly viruses.

Synthetic biology is an emerging research field where the aim is to redesign existing organisms to enable them to perform new functions or to build artificial ones from scratch.

Bioengineers have already programmed bacteria to take pictures, change colour and glow in the dark. Researchers hope eventually to build bacteria capable of cleaning contaminated soil.

Chemical engineer Jay Keasling at the University of California is currently modifying bacteria to help make the malaria drug artemisinin, which at the moment is complicated and expensive to produce.

Last week the genetic research forum of the Swiss Academy of Sciences held a meeting in Geneva to shed light on developments in synthetic biology and to address concerns about the new discipline.

Among those present was Drew Endy, assistant professor in biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and one of the field's leading lights.

Living systems

Endy told swissinfo that the initial aim of synthetic biology was simply understanding how living systems work.

"The way to think about this is what can biological systems do? We know they can make chemicals and if we could reliably programme biological systems to make chemicals for us then that might enable new forms of chemistry, which are more environmentally benign."

Endy has visions of one day being able to grow a house in "a gigantic programmable gourd", though he admits this is unlikely to become a reality within the next 30 years.

But as with any technology with a dual-use potential, synthetic biology has already triggered alarm bells over possible criminal applications. One recent headline in the MIT's own Technology Review captured the mood perfectly: "Could Terrorists Hijack Your Brain?"

Endy admits that controlling distribution of the new technology to limit the risk of it being abused will be well nigh impossible.

He says it will be cheap and widely accessible, and therefore people should be encouraged to learn how to apply it constructively.

"If we don't invest in that... eventually you should expect that somebody will misapply it. There needs to be an active promotion of the constructive, creative, useful applications of the technology," he said.

Rebuild pathogens

Ursula Jenal, a Swiss biosafety consultant, said that at this stage it was not clear in which direction synthetic biology would evolve: whether it would be used to rebuild pathogens, produce new fuels or grow new organisms.

She added that a step-by-step approach was needed to evaluate the risks of synthetic biology and then to put in place the necessary safeguards.

"In terms of risk assessment it's important to raise awareness, but at the same time not to assume risks prematurely," said Jenal.

She said safeguards for protecting humans and the environment, as well as laboratory staff, were already in place.

But Jenal stressed that extra special care had to be taken if the redesigning of biological parts resulted in functions or entirely new microorganisms that could have harmful or pathogenic effects for human beings and the environment.

According to legal experts, synthetic biology would be covered by existing Swiss legislation on gene technology, which lays down strict guidelines.

Karoline Dorsch, executive secretary of the Swiss Expert Committee for Biosafety, told swissinfo that the body had discussed the new research field but had yet to take a position on it.

"If the field continues to develop at speed then we will have to start reconsidering the situation. It is clear that we have to keep an eye on it continuously," she said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

According to the genetic research forum of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, many ideas exist for the application of synthetic biology but it is too early to say which will see the light of day.

Possible applications include the use of artifical organisms for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, for the generation of renewable energy and for the detection of chemicals and pollutants in the environment.

The forum believes that the possibility of bioterrorists abusing the technology is "negligible" but says safety and security should be paramount.

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