Is Synthetic Biology a Cause For Concern?

Answering protesters at the recent SB6.0 conference 

At last week’s Sixth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology (SB6.0), delegates were met by a small band of protestors voicing opposition to the emerging field. Their criticisms – distributed in an unsigned letter – raise some interesting discussion points, some more valid than others. I fundamentally disagree that “the core of the problem with synthetic biology is reductionism and contempt of the natural world”. On the contrary, synthetic biology, whose mantra, appropriated from Nobel physicist and iconoclast Richard Feynman, “what I cannot create, I do not understand”, is doing an excellent job of teaching us that there is still much we do not fully appreciate in biology - particularly emergent phenomena that as molecular systems become complex (and the note rightly points out), result in unpredicted, often confounding outcomes for researchers attempting to realise designed gene circuits in living cells.

However, the note makes an egregious non sequitur when it asserts that this is evidence that life “can never be constructed according to engineering principles”. It is almost certainly true that engineering principles developed with gears, electronics and motors in mind are inadequate and that they must evolve to accommodate effects that only appear when, for example, components are required to operate in the crowded, hectic environment inside a living cell. This is a point that many researchers in synthetic biology would do well to heed.

Interestingly, the note’s author seems to slide in the direction of the nineteenth century vitalism debates, especially when he or she asserts that “trying to force life into your [synthetic] system is a form of violence”. The idea that we, and indeed all living things, are more than ‘mere’ chemistry, whether we like it or not, contradicts decades of research in molecular biology and is a startling position to take in the post-genomic age. The author seems unaware that all of the major biomolecules (DNA, RNA, proteins) can be synthesised in the test tube and are practically indistinguishable from their ‘natural’ counterparts. As Douglas Adams might have said, “biology is just chemistry showing off”.

This realisation is not necessarily a cause to lose respect for biology, if anything quite the reverse – synthetic biology teaches us that nature is an incredibly complex molecular system developed over millions of years of Darwinian evolution that works far, far better than our designs could hope for. Nonetheless, individual systems of interest to humans, for example, the biological mechanism for the production of a therapeutic drug (e.g. a molecule to combat malaria parasites) often can be improved or re-engineered for mass production. Exploitation in this sense is not a dirty word – biotechnology can improve our daily lives and provide technologies that allow us to be less harmful to the environment, not more, a point the author seems to miss.

The author makes some interesting points about the use of biofuels and, presumably, GM (which is the research field that synthetic biology has seemingly assimilated). Whilst the inappropriate, unilateral and unethical use of these technologies is certainly something we, as a society, must be mindful of, I would point out that the potential benefits clearly warrant further investigation. Like all scientific endeavours, synthetic biology and its applications (particular those which involve its deployment in the natural world) must be conducted in an evidence-based and academically rigorous manner.

I do not deny that synthetic biology has the potential to be dangerous, but it is only through careful research – good science – that we find out how to make biotechnology better, cheaper and safer, and to study the consequences of human action – if there is evidence to be had that the natural world is at risk from human intervention then it is we, scientists such as those attending the SB6.0 conference, who are your strongest allies.