Playing God in the Lab

Synthetic biology could relieve suffering, through disease cures - and also inflict it, if rogues or terrorists turn the technology to cruel ends


Think of how the Internet changed communications, or how the assembly line revolutionized manufacturing. That's what scientists say is happening today in the life sciences, thanks to an emerging field called synthetic biology. The new field, they say, could finally make good on the promises of the 30-year-old genetics revolution and deliver a flood of new drugs, therapies and diagnostic techniques.

But many scientists and government officials also fear that in the next few years researchers working alone or in small groups will be able to manufacture hard-to-obtain germs, like the smallpox and ebola viruses, using only a few thousand dollars' worth of lab equipment and chemicals. It is already possible to manufacture some simple but dangerous viruses, including tick-borne encephalitis.

And some governments may be tempted to use the technology to develop new, more terrifying bioweapons - organisms that resist all known drugs and vaccines, say, or that shut down the immune system.

Scientists are now tinkering with life more quickly, cheaply and extensively than was possible just five years ago.

Biologists are using computers to design arrays of genes and making them with off-the-shelf chemicals in their own labs. Strands of manmade DNA also can be ordered online - and delivered by FedEx.

In 2002, Eckard Wimmer and his lab at the State University of New York at Stony Brook demonstrated some of the power and danger of this technology. They synthesized the complete genetic code of the polio virus using mail-order DNA and the microbe's genetic sequence, posted on the Internet.

Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year used similar techniques to re-create the long-extinct Spanish flu virus, which killed up to 100 million people across the globe in 1918-1919. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in April created a new form of the Escherichia coli bacterium, a major cause of diarrhea.

Until recent years, scientists were limited to cutting and pasting genes from one organism to another. In this way, they have made bacteria that produce insulin and human growth hormone, and have bred goats that produce human antithrombin - which regulates the coagulation of blood - in their milk.

Synthetic biology makes it possible, in theory, to do much more: to re-create whole genomes - an organism's complete genetic library - from scratch. One day, it may produce synthetic organisms never previously seen in nature.

The new approach in biology is the unforeseen result of the convergence of progress in several other fields, including computer and materials science. Because it has developed so rapidly, there are, researchers say, still significant gaps in regulation and oversight.

George M. Church of Harvard University says that synthetic biology is one of those rare disciplines with the power to "disrupt" the social, economic and cultural landscape. "Synthetic biology is growing exponentially," Church said, "and it's hard to be exponential without being disruptive."

Two years ago, Church started calling for the scientific community to push for voluntary and regulatory controls. The government, Church said, should monitor the sales of chemicals and lab equipment used to synthesize DNA.

Universities where young molecular biologists train should keep track of their alumni, he said, so no one "disappears" into the world of clandestine research, whether it is a government lab or a jihadist cell.

Scientists who conduct research that could be used to make bioweapons, Church said, "should be voluntarily or involuntarily under surveillance."

But Church and other scientists don't want strict rules that ban certain research outside federal labs, like those being built at the $1.2 billion National Interagency Biodefense Campus in Fort Detrick.

If that happened, Church said, only scientists who were interested in bioweapons research would wind up using the new technology. "You would end up exactly with the 10 people in the world working on it who you don't want working on it."

Some of Church's ideas were incorporated into a proposed voluntary code of conduct considered by researchers last month at a conference called Synthetic Biology 2.0 at the University of California, Berkeley.

Yet the idea of a voluntary code was rejected by the assembled scientists, after Greenpeace International, the United Kingdom-based GeneWatch and 36 others issued a letter that called for a "global societal debate" over the implications of the field and mandatory government rules.

A federal law requires universities and the National Institutes of Health to monitor research into 41 biological agents and toxins that pose a severe threat to public health and safety. But with synthetic biology, relatively harmless microbes may be rendered lethal.

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