Synthetic biology and Obama's bioethics commission: How can we govern the garage biologists who are tinkering with life?

What's to come?
Feb. 1 2011 9:20 AM

Faking Organisms

How can we govern the garage biologists who are tinkering with life?

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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.)

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The best protection against runaway synthetic organisms might come not from restricting the technology, but from harnessing it. "Suicide genes" or other self-destruction mechanisms could be built into organisms to limit their longevity. "Alternatively, engineered organisms could be made to depend on nutritional components absent outside the laboratory, such as novel amino acids, and thereby controlled in the event of release."

How can the government encourage researchers to incorporate these safeguards and participate in responsibility-oriented training programs? By funding their work. This reverses the Bush administration's approach to stem cells. Bush prohibited federal funding of embryo-destructive research so pro-life taxpayers wouldn't have to support it. The Obama commission does the opposite: It recommends "public investment" to gain leverage over synthetic biologists. If the government subsidizes your research, it can attach conditions such as ethics training or suicide genes.

6. Revisit all questions. Occasionally, the Obama commission forgets its own advice and makes a risky assumption. For example, it brushes off "the synthesis of genomes for a higher order or complex species," asserting, "There is widespread agreement that this will remain [impossible] for the foreseeable future." But if this prediction or any other turns out to be erroneous, don't worry. The report builds in a mechanism to correct them: future reevaluations of its conclusions.

This is more than a matter of reassessing particular technologies. It's a commitment to rethink larger assumptions, paradigms, and ethical questions. "Discussions of moral objections to synthetic biology should be revisited periodically as research in the field advances in novel directions," says the report. "An iterative, deliberative process … allows for the careful consideration of moral objections to synthetic biology, particularly if fundamental changes occur in the capabilities of this science." Arguments against the technology

will surely continue as the field matures, as well they should. The question relevant to the Commission's present review of synthetic biology is whether this field brings unique concerns that are so novel or serious that special restrictions are warranted at this time. Based on its deliberations, the Commission has concluded that special restrictions are not needed, but that prudent vigilance can and should be exercised. As this field develops and our ability to engineer higher-order genomes using synthetic biology grows, other deliberative bodies ought to revisit this conclusion. In so doing, it will be critical that future objections are widely sought, clearly defined, and carefully considered.

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That's the way good scientists think: subject your work to peer review, seek falsification, and revise hypotheses as we learn more. Every question is open to reexamination.  Even the commission's rejection of a moratorium on synthetic biology "at this time" implies the possibility of reversal. Who knows what the future will bring?

I count three specific restrictions in the commission's interpretation of prudent vigilance. First, "Risk assessment should precede field release of the products of synthetic biology." That's more than monitoring. It's a precautionary hurdle. Second, "reliable containment and control mechanisms" such as suicide genes "should be identified and required." Third, "ethics education … should be developed and required" for synthetic biologists, as it is for medical and clinical researchers.

Beyond those three rules, prudent vigilance seems to be a matter of humility, open-mindedness, keeping an eye on things, constantly rethinking assumptions, and finding creative ways to influence an increasingly diffuse community of scientific entrepreneurs. It's a lot of work. But it's what we'll have to do if we don't want to restrict technologies preemptively or leave them unsupervised. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

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