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Synthetic Biology Research: What Are The Benefits And Risks?

Synthetic biology research – NASA Ames

Scientists may be pretty pumped at the thought of using synthetic biology to create designer organisms, but others are saying these developments will require vigilance and additional monitoring and regulations to make sure the breathtaking powers associated with this emerging science are not used in negative ways.

Within synthetic biology, genomes are built from scratch, which could well lead to new organisms that produce food, drugs, fuel, polymers and biomass that could help feed the world’s hungry, break down waste, and replace fossil fuels. The field is already starting to move rapidly from the academic world into the commercial world.

Synthetic biology experts claim the overall objective of experimenting with the science is to design and construct entirely new life forms. The biggest challenge involves modeling entire biological systems, which are made of complex genetic codes and cellular networks.

According to Dr. Michael Selgelid, a synthetic biology expert, the power of synthetic biology has put scientists in a situation similar to that of physicists who were involved with the making of the first atomic bombs. He says this is also a “dual use” form of technology, where the intentions are initially good, but could also be used in potentially destructive ways. For instance, this technology could create a virus as deadly and incurable as smallpox, wiping out thousands, if not millions, of people with one slip.

However, most researchers and scientists do not want such valuable research and technology tossed out due to fears of misuse. Many researchers would like authorities to closely monitor the science to make sure it is used within its intended purposes. While the risk of biological terrorism may be a real one, scientists say it is unlikely that any potentially dangerous synthetic biology research would be approved, and it is unlikely that scientists working with the proper materials would create a deadly disease just by accident.

Given the possible benefits, should scientists experiment with synthetic biology, or is the risk of disaster too high?

Via ABC Science
Image CC licensed by Alexander van Dijk: Synthetic Biology Research at NASA Ames

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