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Rewriting Life

Safe Science

Lessons from ­nanotechnology can help synthetic biology mature.

Synthetic biology—the science of engineering systems from biological organisms or parts—could have a significant impact on our lives. Numerous products based on this technology, including bioplastics, pesticides, biofuels, and drugs to treat diabetes, cholera, and cancer (see Biology’s Master Programmers), are already on the market or close to it.

That march from lab bench to market is under scrutiny from venture capitalists, politicians touting the new bio-economy—and the usual naysayers. This last group warns of scientists “playing God” and fears that terrorists could exploit the technology for cheap bioweapons. Friends of the Earth and other organizations have called for a moratorium, insisting that capitalism yield to the precautionary principle.

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This scenario is familiar to anybody with a memory going back 10 years. Nanotechnology was once discussed in similarly hyperbolic terms, with scientists talking up its Earth-saving capacities and opponents warning that self-replicating nanobots could devour the planet. The fervor has since cooled, and the global nanotechnology market is expected to reach $30.4 billion by 2015, according to Global Industry Analysts.

When the public is confronted with new technologies, trust is volatile, and mistrust can have lasting effects—witness European consumers’ rejection of genetically modified foods. We should learn from what helped nanotechnology break free of the hysteria.

As nanotechnology matured, federal spending on research into its environmental, health, and safety risks increased—from $38 million in 2006 to an estimated $103 million in 2012. In 2008, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency invested $38 million to establish two centers to address nanotechnology’s environmental implications. A similar commitment should be made for synthetic biology. There are complex, legitimate questions about how synthetic organisms can be contained, whether they can survive in the environment, and whether their genes will transfer to other organisms. These questions will not be answered quickly or cheaply, but answering them will open doors to future markets.

By shouldering some of the responsibility, the synthetic-biology industry can also help build public trust, as DuPont did in 2007 by working with the Environmental Defense Fund to develop a risk management framework for nanotech. The press could also help by better communicating the real issues rather than, for example, suggesting tenuous links between the small amateur biotech scene and the H5N1 bird-flu virus. Finally, synthetic biology would benefit from a coherent, long-term national strategy and better international coördination. The Obama administration’s National Bioeconomy Blueprint, released in April, is only a start.

In his provocative 2000 essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” computing pioneer Bill Joy claimed that robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech were making it possible to construct “technology that may replace our species.” We are still here, but we shouldn’t let our guard down.

David Rejeski is the director of the Science & Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

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