Remember nanotechnology and grey goo, made popular by Prince Charles in 2004? The scientists learned from the GM crop problems and played a fantastic game of PR – offering seminars, co-chaired with government officials, wooing the media. The public were not interested and any controversy related to nanotechnology was quietly retired.
Synthetic biology is the latest controversy (see here for a definition). Perhaps the name is a little contentious as it does sound a bit like ‘playing god’. However, it is more like experiments in engineering than creating Eve from Adam’s rib. Recently, for example, a synthetic cell was made from generating DNA fragments artificially and transplanting it into another cell which was able to reproduce (see here). The bits required to propagate the cell lineage existed already in the recipient cell although the DNA was made artificially. So it is more about augmentation than creation. The production of non-native proteins in cells has been happening for decades so Synthetic Biology, in this case, is only a step forward to offer a new method for producing desired proteins in a ‘foreign’ bacterium.
Franken-cell? Should we really be so afraid? The answer is in the application and we have seen this all before. Providing the science is responsible, a set of ethical standards are developed and adhered to within the research community (public and private sector) and governments take an early interest…not to mention some good PR…the benefits to humanity should be clear for all to see.
Posted by Joshua Duchenne