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When scientists play god

The benefits of synthetic biology can’t be held hostage to fear-mongering maxims

india Updated: Jul 29, 2012 23:43 IST
Adam Rutherford,synthetic biology,hindustantimes

‘Playing god since 1660’ reads the motto on the Royal Society’s sign in a scene from The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, the latest film from the makers of Wallace & Gromit. Now I can no longer enter the doors of our national science academy without quoting the Pirate Captain’s rallying cry, “Prepare to be boarded, nerds!”.

Earlier this year I presented a programme on synthetic biology. Our choice of title, ‘Playing god’, was not intended as a criticism of synthetic biologists, but rather to highlight an allegation they often face. The phrase is regularly used as a handy stick with which to beat those in the field. Scientists, critics claim, are meddling in matters that should be left to the gods.

That accusation has been made in attacks against many of the major scientific advances of the modern era, including the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978; the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997; and the sequencing of the human genome in 2001. In all these scenarios, it’s not clear exactly what ‘playing God’ actually means.

The ability to design and build biological systems provides a new way to understand how living things work, yet the field is more about engineering than it is about science. However, many synthetic biologists are seeking to solve problems in more efficient ways than traditional engineering does, with potential applications ranging from fighting pollution and cancer to manufacturing fuel and drugs.

Researchers in California, for example, have created synthetic circuits for yeast cells that produce a chemical called artemisinin, a key anti-malarial drug. This will be cheaper than getting it from the plant Artemisia annua, the current production method. Meanwhile, a US-Swiss group has engineered a genetic circuit designed to detect and destroy cancer cells without inflicting the unintended damage caused by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Prometheus, a titan in Greek mythology, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. His punishment was to be bound to a rock, have his liver plucked out by an eagle and regrown overnight, so that his ordeal could be played out repeatedly. The idea — and the negative connotations — of humans acquiring god-like powers is culturally embedded in legends such as this.

Yet, there is almost no aspect of human behaviour that isn’t some form of manipulation of the environment for our own purposes. Farming, which we’ve been doing for more than 10,000 years, is quite the opposite of natural. Breeding, known scientifically as ‘artificial selection’, is the process of mixing genes by design to engineer cheap and plentiful food.

Detractors use the phrase ‘playing god’ to provoke emotive opposition without defining what it is about synthetic biology that is qualitatively different to the previous advances that they benefit from every day. Should we go back to the time before humans started playing god through their development of sanitation, vaccines and measures to counter widespread child mortality?

There will be few aspects of our lives that will remain untouched by synthetic biology. Advancing technology is not risk-free, and needs to be regulated, understood and, if necessary, curtailed. But those decisions need to be made as part of informed public conversations about the relative risks and benefits. The opportunities are too great for synthetic biology to be written off with fear-mongering maxims.

If playing god involves developing technologies that cure diseases, clean up pollution and create new forms of fuel, then these potential benefits need to be considered without the burden of vague, simplistic soundbites. Only with engaged and rational public discussions about what a technology such as synthetic biology means, and what it can and can’t achieve, can we harness it to create a better future.

The Guardian

First Published: Jul 29, 2012 23:41 IST