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Synthetic Biology: Genetic Engineering on Steroids

A Darker Bioweapons Future

by PETER MONTAGUE

One of the top developments of 2005 is a kind of genetic engineering on steroids — a new field called "synthetic biology" in which scientists are setting out to create new forms of life that have never existed before.

In "genetic engineering," natural genes from one species are inserted by force into a different species, hoping to transfer the properties or characteristics of one species into another. Trout can live in cold water, so maybe a trout gene blasted into a tomato will help tomatoes withstand cold weather. The limitation on this system is the characteristics that nature has built into the genes of species.

Now scientists have overcome that limitation. They are learning to develop entirely new species, new forms of life. Awareness of this new scientific specialty — called "synthetic biology" — began to appear in the press in 2005.

The construction of living things from raw chemicals was first demonstrated in 2002 when scientists created a polio virus from scratch. They found the polio virus genome on the internet, and within 2 years had created a virus from raw chemicals. The synthetic virus could reproduce and, when injected into mice, paralyzed them just as a natural polio virus would do. They said they chose the polio virus to demonstrate what a bioterrorist could accomplish.

"It is a little sobering to see that folks in the chemistry laboratory can basically create a virus from scratch," James LeDuc of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said at the time.

A year later, in 2003 Craig Venter and colleagues at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives in Rockville, Md., took only 3 weeks to create a virus from scratch.

Later that same year the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) published a short paper called "The Darker Bioweapons Future," reporting the conclusions of a panel of life science experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences. The CIA paper said, in part, "The effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man." And the CIA said, "The same science that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the world’s most frightening weapons." The CIA offered one example: "For example, one panelist cited the possibility of a stealth virus attack that could cripple a large portion of people in their forties with severe arthritis, concealing its hostile origin and leaving a country with massive health and economic problems."

Nature magazine — England’s most prestigious science journal — said in 2004 that synthetic biology "carries potential dangers that could eclipse the concerns already raised about genetic engineering and nanotechnology."

Last month, the British journal New Scientist said in an editorial, "Let us hope that tomorrow’s terrorists don’t include people with PhDs in molecular genetics." The editorial went on to explain why the technology cannot regulated: "The underlying technology has already proliferated worldwide, and some gene-synthesis companies that are ostensibly based in the west are thought to manufacture their DNA in China and other countries in the far east where skilled labour is cheap."

The editorial was written in response to an investigation conducted by the editors of New Scientist. They wondered if they could special- order DNA over the internet and have it shipped to them by mail (which the Brits call "post," not mail). Their report is titled, "The bioweapon is in the post," and they concluded that it would be doable, and that commerce in such things would be difficult — or impossible — to control. "But with gene synthesis firms springing up all over the world, and the underlying technology becoming cheaper and more widely available, it is unclear whether regulations enacted in any one country will be enough."

"It’s going to be virtually impossible to control," predicts David Magnus of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

The New Scientist editorial ends by saying, "If there ever was a case for scientists around the world to engage in sensible self-regulation before a nightmare becomes reality, this is it."

Unfortunately, scientists are ill-equipped by their training to grapple with the ethical and moral dimensions of their work. Scientists have no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath — "First do no harm" — that guides the behavior of physicians. The Hippocratic oath counsels restraint, humility, and caution. In science, on the other hand, wherever your curiosity takes you is the right place to go, even if it takes you into "a darker bioweapons future."

Small wonder that so many people have lost faith in science, scientific progress, and the promise of America. As the editors of Nature said in 2004, "Controversies over genetically engineered crops and embryo research are leading people to question how carefully scientists consider the possible consequences of their work before barreling ahead. This is no small concern for science, as it has already led to restrictions."

But of course it isn’t just scientists who are responsible for speeding the deployment of ill-considered technologies onto the world market. The underlying engine for all this reckless behavior is an economic system that requires economic growth year after year.

Our society has grown dependent upon economic growth for achieving "liberty and justice for all." You say your slice of the pie is unacceptably small and you’re having to sleep under a bridge? Don’t worry — economic growth will make the whole pie larger, so your tiny slice will grow too. Thus domestic tranquility, justice, fairness, and fulfilling the promise of America are all dependent upon economic growth. We don’t have any other widely-approved way to distribute the benefits of the economy, except through economic growth. We have forgotten the alternative, which is sharing.

But decade after decade since World War II, economic growth rates have been stagnant or declining, not just in the U.S. but throughout the "developed" world.

Slow growth derives from at least two sources — productive capacity exceeds consumer demand and we have a glut of capital, so it is getting harder to find good investments.

These two features of the modern economy force investors to constantly search for "the next big thing" — in hopes of returning to historical rates of return on investment. As a consequence, corporations (which have limited liability, by law) engage in reckless behavior — including behavior that may threaten the well being of everyone. They create new biotech crops and deploy them across the nation’s agricultural landscape before thorough tests have been completed. They put nano particles into baby lotion before they have any idea whether the nano particles can penetrate a baby’s skin, and before they have asked where those nano particle will go after they are thrown out with the bath water.

So now we have synthetic biology — the "next big thing" — genetic engineering on steroids — the manufacture of living organisms unlike any that have appeared on earth before. Investors are lining up to support new firms that are willing to sell the building blocks of new forms of life to anyone who can come up with a few hundred thousand dollars. This may in fact produce the next big thing, but it may not be quite the thing investors are hoping for.

Until we devise a steady-state economy that does not require perpetual growth, investors will keep us on this awful "next big thing" merry- go-round, our quality of life continually threatened anew by the ill- considered products and unanticipated by-products of feral science.

PETER MONTAGUE is editor of the indispensable Rachel’s Health and Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: peter@rachel.org