Sometimes scientific discovery outpaces our ability to comprehend its implications and to construct safeguards and ethical boundaries around it. Such is the case in recent work in which the genome (the genetic blueprint) of a bacterium was created in a research laboratory.
Our knowledge of the chemical basis for heredity has accelerated over the past 60 years. In 1944, Dr. Oswald Avery determined that genetic information was transmitted by deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson worked out the double-spiral structure of DNA. Chemical composition of the DNA for simple organisms was uncovered over the years.
In 2003, scientists working in private and governmental labs announced that they had determined the chemical composition of the human genome -- the entire map of our DNA.
Information gained from DNA research continues to drive vital advances in clinical medicine. Bacteria can be programmed to produce exact copies of human hormones such as insulin. New agents for attacking cancerous cells can be manufactured. Genetic errors that lead to diseases can be addressed. These applications are in their infancy.
On May 20, scientists working in the privately owned lab of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland reported the creation of a bacterial cell from artificially constructed DNA. They presented their work on-line in Sciencexpress. The researchers worked out the chemical composition of the DNA of a particular bacterium (A). Next they created an exact copy of this DNA. Then they inserted the newly formed DNA into another type of bacterium (B).
The new DNA took over control of B and began to reproduce cells identical to the A bacterium. The A bacteria reproduced independently thereafter.
Other scientists working in the new field of "synthetic biology" hailed the accomplishment and predicted a Nobel Prize for the innovators. The breakthrough points the way to the creation of new life-forms. Imagine custom-made cells that could attack cancer cells. Cells could be designed to consume environmental pollutants such as oil from leaky, deep-sea wells. Other synthetic cells could attack crop-eating insects. The possibilities seem limitless.
But the new technology poses very serious problems. Without rigorous safeguards, a new bacterial strain could escape from a lab and wreak havoc in an environment in which there were no natural checks. A synthetic bacterium for which there was no natural immunity could launch a devastating pandemic. Terrorists or sociopaths could steal or manufacture synthetic bacteria which could wipe out a population of adversaries.
Before labs pop up worldwide to pursue research in synthetic biology we should swiftly formulate rules and restrictions for research in synthetic biology. Each lab should be registered with national and international regulatory agencies. Labs and their personnel should meet rigorous standards for safety and security. Each research project should be registered with periodic follow-ups of its progress. An identifying chemical should be included in each newly created life-form to identify its lab or origin for liability purposes.
Synthetic biology raises complex ethical concerns. Should new life-forms be created in the first place? If new bacteria can be created today, how long before a private lab undertakes the creation of human beings? Mary Shelley's masterpiece, "Frankenstein," sounds a warning of the unintended consequences of scientific research that is responsible to no one.
Perhaps I am being an alarmist. I recall, however, an episode from decades ago when researchers launched a cloud of bacteria thought to be harmless to study air currents. An outbreak of pneumonia downwind from the site of release showed the error in their thinking.
The National Academy of Science and The National Institutes of Health together with their equivalents in other nations need to address the promises and threats of synthetic biology now. This is a non-partisan issue that deserves Congressional attention as well.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.