Synthetic biology: ‘playing God’ is vital if we are to create a better future for all

NOTE: The usually critical UK Guardian has a boxseat in the cheerleading section on synthetic biology, and has recently published another in a series of semi-misleading cheerleading pieces. We agree fully with the need for “engaged and rational public discussions,” on synthetic biology, as the article below calls for. But we don’t agree that the corporate concentration of patents on life create conditions favorable to such discussions…. – synbiowatch

Cross-posted from the Guardian UK:

“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 and Gromit. And 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 BBC2 Horizon 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. Environmentalists, religious figures and sections of the media regularly use the phrase as a handy stick with which to beat those in the field. Scientists, they claim, are foolishly meddling in matters that should be left to the gods or nature.

That accusation has been made in attacks against many of the major scientific advances of the modern era, including Watson and Crick’s description of the structure of DNA in 1953; 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.

Synthetic biology means different things to different people. Its leading scientists want to create, characterise and, crucially, standardise individual pieces of DNA. The purpose is to build biological circuits with specific functions, in much the same way that you might arrange components to make an electrical circuit. Others want to produce new versions of genetic code with entirely new letters and entirely unnatural versions of DNA.

The ability to design and build biological systems provides a new way to understand how living things work, yet the field is much more about engineering than it is about pure 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.

Nasa is investigating ways to create bacteria that counter the effects of radiation sickness in astronauts. 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 enjoy and 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 very 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.







2 responses to “Synthetic biology: ‘playing God’ is vital if we are to create a better future for all”

  1. schmax Avatar


    “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.”

    Sounds balanced to me, or are we now simply suppose to dismiss anyone who isn’t 100% pure?

    1. jeff Avatar

      Cheerleading in the sense that the author takes certain things as given: that Amyris’ synthetic artemisinin “will be cheaper than getting to from the plant” (there is no evidence of this yet, and what are the implications for farmers of artemisia?); cheerleading in the sense that equating synthetic biology with sanitation is disingenuous and misleading (one is a high-tech experimental science, the other is essentially a social technology); and cheerleading in the sense that it creates a binary between “informed public debate” and “fear-mongering maxims”. Informed public debate means debate informed not only by those who stand to benefit, but by those who may se other ways forward.
      I do agree that the ‘playing God’ maxim is, itself, disingenuous. Manipulating microbes does have some equivalency with, say, harnessing oxen or breeding corn, and in this sense it is ‘playing human’, not playing God. But it is wrong to believe that the processes of agriculture that evolved over tens of thousands of years, within human and natural communities, can be simply equated with rapid-throughput manipulation of biomolecules evolving faster than we can understand.
      All of which is to say, we are not taking a ‘purist’ position, as you suggest, merely a position that holds that the technology should be scrutinized for what it is and what it does, not for what some of us hope it is and dream that it does….