The case of synthetic biology

Few people are even aware what the concept synthetic biology represents, and yet it has already become a cutting-edge focus of major research efforts and teaching. Synthetic biology purports, in essence, to create useful creatures through engineering methods. It uses multi-purpose components taken from nature’s building blocks. Organisms not heretofore seen in nature may be capable of producing fuels, complex chemicals, or novel pharmaceuticals, but also computer circuits based on biological structures. Can we out-nature nature and surpass evolution? Impressive steps in that direction have been made already. Optimization and fine-tuning of naturally occurring enzymes no longer makes front-page news.

In fact, synthetic biology’s visions open Pandora’s box of unlimited possibilities pointing to the big bang of a multi-trillion-dollar industry: tailor-made bacteria that identify and destroy toxins, produce fuels formerly known as fossil, render planets like Mars or Venus suitable for human habitation, let tables and chairs grow out of the soil without needing humans to manufacture them from timber wood. The starting point of synthetic biology is the identification of “bio bricks” and a three-dimensional “DNA printer” transforming a customized genome sequence into a new and reprogrammed bacterium or complex organism. Harvard researcher George Church has already presented a prototype he called MAGE (Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering), a device that indeed translates relatively short DNA sequences via several intermediary steps into molecules that it inserts directly into monocellular organisms.

Our competition with nature may be won by sidestepping considerations that would play a central role in evolution, which is, after all, a contest for survival of the fittest.  But what if the effort required to produce a substance is in no relation to the survival of the individual of the species producing it? Natural organisms need to observe a balance of priorities and interests, but synthetically engineered life does not.

As of today, synthetic biology is not yet dominated by any given technology. But a major leap lies straight ahead as the introduction of entire artificially manufactured genomes into living cells becomes increasingly feasible. Already now, DNA synthesis is cheap, a trend that will continue and accelerate. What still needs to improve geometrically, though, is the accuracy of chromosomal replication. What is no problem for 10,000 base pairs remains a serious challenge for 10 million base pairs.

Chromosomes are long, string-shaped molecules encoding genetic information, and they are 2,000 to 10,000 times longer than the cell they inhabit. That string needs to be folded in order to fit into the cell, in an orderly three-dimensional structure to keep the chromosome available for a multitude of processes in the cell. This defined structure is maintained by SMC proteins so as to avoid the occurrence of randomness. Only 50 molecules are ultimately responsible for maintaining chromosomal structure in a bacterial cell, of which 20 percent are static and tied to the chromosome at two centers. The majority of 80% of SMC molecules is dynamic in nature and migrates across the entire length of a chromosome, effectively organizing it. The discovery of dynamic SMC proteins explained how just a few protein molecules manage to create and maintain a three-dimensional shape of a chromosome consisting of more than four million nucleotide building blocks. Only dynamic SMC molecules interact directly with the genetic code; static ones have no such ability. The ability to alter their design will therefore lead to another expectable quantum leap in synthetic biology.

Naturally, this poses difficult questions for technology assessment. Already in 2008, Craig Venter’s creation of a first cell with synthetic genome provoked strong reactions in many quarters. Socio-political conflicts resulting from potential risks and ethics concerns are likely to arise quickly and trigger intense debate across societies of any level of sophistication and industrial development. Scientists examine the subject matter of their research from a vantage point of pure cognition. Value judgments usually do not occur at this stage that is concerned solely with understanding the mechanism and potential of a groundbreaking discovery. Hence, it is very difficult for scientists to conceive of different views with regard to a given object of research.

Torgersen and Schmidt argue that comparisons have a significant influence on the public discourse on scientific innovation. They posit that acceptance of synthetic biology by society may ultimately depend on whether it is compared with genetic biotechnology, with nanotechnology, or with information technology.

These three areas of innovation carry altogether different images in public connotation. Biotechnology has long suffered from a negative "frankenfoods" image prompted by gene modifications in agricultural products, while information technology is embraced by an overwhelming majority and perceived as a sign of progress. With regard to nanotechnology, society appears to rely to a substantial extent on experts and legislative or regulatory controls to anticipate and curtail potential risks emerging from this field. But while it may seem obvious to expect comparison of synthetic biology to biotechnology, that need not necessarily turn into the dominant perception. Because of its extensive computational prerequisites for processing and interpreting fundamental data and for development of novel systems, the field is largely dominated by IT professionals.

Accordingly, jargon and optimistic research culture characteristic of the information technology industry have spread to synthetic biology, and this could have significant consequences for public perception. Whether intentional or not, this association of perceptions is ultimately the functional equivalent of a successful sales strategy. But conscious exploitation of the enthusiasm surrounding information technology is not observable in synthetic biology to date, likely because most research scientists are genuinely convinced that their work entails enormous potential utility. Major social conflicts such as those that affected the discourse on Genetically Modified Organisms may be sidestepped, because the modalities of manufacture of products thus far considered to be likely targets of synthetic biology research, such as fuels, chemicals, or pharmaceuticals – as opposed to foodstuffs or human cells – remain below the radar of people’s concerns. This state of affairs is likely to remain unchanged, unless a major scandal occurs with direct impact on more sensitive areas and issues. Not least, democratic interdiction of scientific research shows a record of all-out failure. As stem cell research has shown, the prohibition of scientific developments for irrational reasons only results in forum shopping, and the value creation associated with it, including but not limited to its economic benefits, tends to migrate accordingly.

The problem here, as with every technology, lies in its advanced potential for criminal abuse and for resulting threats not only to national, but also global security. The more advanced and cheaper technology for the creation and redesign of living organisms becomes, the more security concerns move suddenly within close reach. They will, with near absolute certainty, require far closer monitoring and emergency measures, and likely also preventative measures, than our current legal and constitutional order is comfortable and capable of addressing. Still, one certainty exists: if you can build it, they will come...

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