Is synthetic biology dangerous? How to manage the world's most important new science.

What's to come?
Feb. 3 2011 2:02 PM

Don't Be Afraid of the Dragon

Fears of synthetic biology are overblown.

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This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on whether governments can keep pace with scientific advances will be held at Google D.C.'s headquarters on Feb. 3-4. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the  NAF Web site.)

Click here to view a slide show on synthetic biology.

Genetic engineering is the direct manipulation of an organism's DNA in ways not possible under natural conditions, a tool for programming living things. The outputs can be beneficial, such as new medicines or renewable fuels, or harmful, by design or by accident. Historically, genetic engineering was possible only by trained professionals with sophisticated facilities, limiting the pace and scope of work and allowing some degree of oversight and regulation. "Synthetic biology," an improved suite of tools for genetic manipulation, is removing these barriers and brakes, significantly changing the landscape. The implications of this could be profound for individuals, for industries, for nations, and even for the planet.

One way to help think about the future of synthetic biology is to visualize the cell as a living computer. Through this lens, synthetic biology can be mapped onto what happened when computing, a different technology of similar power once available to only the select few, went mainstream. The lessons of this shift could serve as an important guide for decision-making about synthetic biology. How do we best support the development of good things, appreciating that full control and the complete elimination of harm are impossible?

Click here to view a slide show on synthetic biology.

Andrew Hessel is the co-chair of biotechnology and bioinformatics at the Singularity University, and the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, an effort to open-source the development of personalized cancer therapeutics.

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