The thought that man now has the capacity to create life is staggering. Its many implications are barely understood.
Yet seventeen leading scientists from a variety of fields met in Ilulissat, Greenland to announce their support of the new technology as revolutionary as the discovery of DNA and creation of the transistor.
The field, 'synthetic biology,' is the science of constructing or redesigning components of biological systems that do not naturally exist. By combining engineering applications, nanoscience and molecular biology, man is able to create a new life form.
They believe it carries enormous healing potential in terms of human life and the environment, and they’re not taking it lightly.
With research backgrounds ranging from materials engineering to molecular biophysics, the seventeen scientists issued the "Ilulissat Statement -The Merging of Bio and Nano: Towards Cyborg Cells" announcing their view that the early twenty-first century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril. We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources. Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: from microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body.
"This is a critical moment for synthetic biology," said Paul McEuen, professor of physics, Cornell University. "The choices facing us now — the scientific investments we make and the rules we set down to govern the field — will impact society for decades to come."
"As with any powerful technology, the promise comes with risk," McEuen stressed. "We need to develop protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology."
Recently the first procedure to create a synthetic organism was patented admist great controversy and concern. While patenting the creation of particular forms of life seems incongruent with higher ideologies, it may be the best way to advance the science.
Companies looking for big pay-offs may be the vest vehicles for moving the science forward. These business-minded, money driven organizations know that they must provide something that is beneficial and usable in the real world. They aren’t so much looking to unravel great mysterious (though they may in the process). What they want is a practical answer to real problems. They want what will sell.
But in their hurry to produce the next big thing, could disaster strike? What exactly are the risks associated with the technology? Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore explains why building smallpox from scratch is a real concern in synthetic biology.
“I think viruses are the major focus of concern. They are relatively simple to make and control and some are quite lethal. Smallpox, for example, is very potent, and we are not protected against it. The smallpox sequence is published, so you could recover it by synthesis if you had the lab facilities to do that. But getting the pieces of DNA to make smallpox is not a backyard experiment. You need a large lab with significant biosafety precautions. I don't see this as something that would happen clandestinely in the U.S., but a well-funded lab outside of this country could do something quite nefarious,” Baltimore explained in a recent interview.
The statement issued by the seventeen scientists mentioned earlier, reads that “we need to develop protective measures against accidents and abuses”. But who is “we”? The threat isn’t so much a well-regulated commercial or government laboratory (although serious accidents are always a possibility), but something more off the books. The real concern is that this new technology could very likely be developed by the “bad guys” as a frightening new form of .
So is the new technology dangerous? Yes. Could this technology end up saving countless lives and clean up many of the environmental messes we’ve created? Yes. Is it worth the risk? Probably.
Posted by Rebecca Sato with Casey Kazan.
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