Synthetic biology has come a long way in the last two years. It is no longer dismissed as just another overhyped offshoot of the Human Genome Project, but rather is recognized as a transforming technology that will change the way we generate energy and manufacture medicines, materials, and computers. The field has earned the attention of researchers and policymakers, the financial support of venture capitalists, NASA, and the Pentagon, ink from magazines like Scientific American, and the dedication of an MIT biological-engineering professor named Drew Endy. Drew who? Who, indeed. Despite competing for airtime with world-renowned researchers like George Poste and Craig Venter, Endy has become a thought leader in a field that needs all the deep thinkers it can find.
Synthetic biology is the quest to design and build, one gene at a time, organisms that do things that organisms made by Mother Nature cannot. There are many applications for synthetic biology, but the ones of most interest, according to Endy, involve the life sciences, energy, materials science, and information technology.
Unlike most scientists and engineers, Endy has to worry about the public acceptance of his field. Its goal, after all, is to transform biology from a science into an engineering platformcomplete with an instruction manual and a standardized list of parts and assembly proceduresthat industries can one day use for the design, manufacture, and testing of products. In some cases, this platform will rely upon insights gained from creating and taking apart synthetic organisms. Endy wants the public to understand that these organisms will not take the form of three-headed monkeys running in the streets, or transgenic pollens drifting into wheat fields. They will be, in many cases, single-cell organisms that can live only a few hours, and only in a petri dish or a test tube.
But there are legitimate concerns about the safety and ethics of synthetic biology. Unlike the genetic engineering that produces pesticide or herbicide resistance in plants, or human therapeutic proteins in the milk of goats, synthetic biology represents the ability to construct vastly more powerful and problematic organisms from scratch. In July 2002, researchers at the State University of New York announced that they had synthesized the deadly and virulent polio virus. This event, which was criticized by scientists and ethicists alike, marked the first time an organism was created entirely from off-the-shelf materials and instructions. SUNY researchers say they did it to illustrate just how easy it is for scientists to construct lifeand for would-be terrorists to construct bioweapons. Synthetic biology also represents the ability to construct artificial life forms that are not modeled on anything found in nature, and whose benefits and hazards are consequently only theoretical. There is no bioethical road map for constructing synthetic organisms one gene at a time.
Were talking about engineering biological systems and organisms, says Endy. There is a risk that somebody will find a way to use this technology to cause harm, and there will be questions about whether this is ethical and truly useful to society or just all about scientific glory and corporate profit. I dont think it is, but how do those of us in the field help get the public from a place of fear and mistrust to a place of trust and acceptance? How do you get from here to there? There is a lot at stake. Endy, who is creating a library of standardized interchangeable genes, is also helping to ensure that his colleagues recognize the ethical implications of their work. Last summer, he helped organize the first synthetic-biology conference, held at MIT, and he continues to speak out about the dilemmas the emerging field poses for scientists.