Science Magazine Boosts Synthetic Biology
Science, which describes itself modestly as "the world's leading outlet for scientific news, commentary, and cutting-edge research" has published a "Special Section" on Synthetic Biology. The descriptive Introduction, titled "The Allure of Synthetic Biology," is freely available; the rest is behind the subscription pay-wall, though abstracts are of course accessible. Since the magazine can be found, in paper or digital form, in virtually every significant library, it seems fair to comment on the issue.
No, it does not debunk the "allure" — rather, it encourages it. As well as a Podcast, a personal story from the Careers section, an Editorial and three actual research papers, the articles in the special section:
- profile George Church ("the life hacker")
- boost a synthetic approach to algae-based biofuels
- describe a DIY BioLab
- consider how artists use and respond (in "shades of ethical gray") to the technology
- relay the benefits of understanding "the interface between the natural and the synthetic"
- highlight "emerging" clinical applications
- and discuss the feasibility of "bottom-up synthetic biology"
But that's not all. Even the most blinkered of scientists now understands that it is important to consider questions of ethics and regulation (or at least to appear to be doing so). So naturally the feature includes an article on "Synthetic Biology: Regulating Industry Uses of New Biotechnologies." It was written by three staffers of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). This is what they say:
In our view, synthetic biology is an extension of the continuum of genetic science that has been used safely for more than 40 years by the biotechnology industry in development of commercial products (Fig. 1).
The figure (partly reproduced above) shows synthetic biology vastly increasing the pace of innovation as compared to old-fashioned recombinant DNA technology, starting last year and heading to 2030.
The BIO trio warn against evaluating synthetic biology with misleading metaphors from modular electronics or the development of computers, preferring the misleading metaphors of husbandry and hybridization. Genetic manipulation is just like farming, you see, and synthetic biology is just like genetic manipulation, and farming needs no regulation, so (from the press release as well as the article):
At this early stage of development, synthetic biology does not pose novel threats that are fundamentally different from those faced by the current biotechnology industry.
The Science feature as a whole would have been a much more useful contribution to the necessary dialog on these issues had it featured comment from any of the individuals and organizations who are both informed and concerned — the likes of the ETC Group, or Friends of the Earth, or ICTA, or the Council for Responsible Genetics, whose GeneWatch special issue on the topic provides an interesting contrast. But not a critic was to be seen. Why, anyone would think that the magazine's mission was to promote the industry.
Previously on Biopolitical Times: