Staying sober about science.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Synthetic biology (Laws, regulations and rules)
Synthetic biology (Research)
Synthetic biology (Ethical aspects)
Bioethics (Research)
Author: Carlson, Rob
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: The Hastings Center Report Publisher: Hastings Center Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Hastings Center ISSN: 0093-0334
Issue: Date: July-August, 2011 Source Volume: 41 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 930 Government regulation; 940 Government regulation (cont); 980 Legal issues & crime; 310 Science & research; 290 Public affairs; 970 Government domestic functions Advertising Code: 94 Legal/Government Regulation; 91 Ethics Computer Subject: Government regulation
Persons: Named Person: Obama, Barack
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 268403461
Full Text: Biology, we are frequently told, is the science of the twenty-first century. Authority informs us that moving genes from one organism to another will provide new drugs, extend both the quantity and quality of life, and feed and fuel the world while reducing water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Authority also informs that novel genes will escape from genetically modified crops, thereby leading to herbicide-resistant weeds; that genetically modified crops are an evil privatization of the gene pool that will with certainty lead to the economic ruin of small farmers around the world; and that economic growth derived from biological technologies will cause more harm than good. In other words, we are told that biological technologies will provide benefits and will come with costs--with tales of both costs and benefits occasionally inflated--like every other technology humans have developed and deployed over all of recorded history.

Our task as citizens is to weigh the costs and benefits, then to let our elected policy-makers know the outcome of our calculation. The task is made more challenging by scientific and technical progress that is complex and difficult for the lay audience to understand. That same complexity is often exploited by both proponents and opponents of any given technology to promise salvation or doom should the polis decide incorrectly. Further muddying the conversation is a press whose behavior consistently lays bare the conflict between accurate reporting and inflammatory headlines concocted to bring in revenue. The Internet, too, contributes a flood of conflicting information, with celebrity or fiery rhetoric often serving as a substitute for actual knowledge. But this is life in the early twenty-first century. We must muddle through.

Into this complicated environment of information and argument we have recently seen introduced the idea that scientists can now synthesize life. In the spring of 2010, Dan Gibson and his colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute published a paper demonstrating the synthesis of a functional bacterial genome from its chemical constituents. (1) The researchers inserted that genome into an existing cell, which then began executing the instructions encoded in the synthetic genome. The ensuing press coverage distorted this notable technical achievement into an unnecessarily provocative philosophical and moral challenge; "Researchers Say They Created a 'Synthetic Cell,'" announced the New York Times; (2) "Craig Venter creates synthetic life form," claimed The Guardian, (3) which had previously encumbered an article profiling Venter with the headline, "I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer." (4)

The notion that scientists might some day create life is a fraught meme in Western culture. One mustn't mess with such things, we are told, because the creation of life is the province of gods, monsters, and practitioners of the dark arts. Thus, any hint that science may be on the verge of putting the power of creation into the hands of mere mortals elicits a certain discomfort, even if the hint amounts to no more than distorted gossip. Rumors and warnings of such goings on have been growing for years as a result of new technologies and methods for genetic manipulation that enable the emerging field of synthetic biology.

It was no surprise, then, that hard on the heels of the paper by the Venter Institute scientists came word of a new assignment for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The White House, apprised in advance of the paper and aware of the growing economic and technological importance of biological technologies, charged the commission with assessing the implications of the scientific milestone. President Obama requested both a thorough review of the risks and benefits and that the commission "develop recommendations about any actions that the Federal government should take to ensure that America benefits from this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks." (5) A full plate, indeed.

After a series of public meetings, with testimony from interested parties, the commission has now released its report. The commission "found no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time. Instead, the Commission urges monitoring and dialogue between public and private sectors to achieve open communication and cooperation." (6) In short, the commission advises against "letting science rip," in the words of Chair Amy Gutmann, and suggests instead "an ongoing system of prudent vigilance that carefully monitors, identifies and mitigates potential and realized harms over time." (7)

Overall, in my opinion, the report is well considered. One must commend President Obama for showing leadership in so rapidly addressing what is seen in some quarters as a highly contentious issue. However, as noted by the commission itself, much of the hubbub is due to hype by both the press and certain parties interested in amplifying the importance of the Venter Institute's accomplishments. Certain scientists want to drive a stake into the heart of vitalism, and perhaps to undermine religious positions concerning the origin of life, while "civil society" groups stoke fears about Frankenstein and want a moratorium on research in synthetic biology. Notably, even when invited to comment by the commission, religious groups had little to say on the matter.

The commission avoided the trap of proscribing from on high the future course of a technology still emerging from the muck. Yet I cannot help the feeling that the report implicitly assumes that the technology can be guided or somehow controlled, as does most of the public discourse on synthetic biology. The broader history of technology, and of its regulation or restriction, suggests that directing its development would be no easy task. (8) Often technologies that are encouraged and supported are also stunted, while technologies that face restriction or prohibition become widespread and indispensable.

The U.S. government is, of course, not the only player in determining the pace and direction of the field. Nor is it the only entity that might attempt to control synthetic biology through regulation. At a recent international meeting on risk governance in synthetic biology, I heard an executive at a major European insurance company remark that "everything is regulated; everything starts as being regulated." In Europe, this may be true, both as a societal expectation and as governmental policy. (The insurance industry itself plays an interesting role in regulating technologies by deciding which products can be indemnified, which can play a large role in determining whether a product reaches the market. (9)) I reminded those gathered, however, that the U.S. government is constitutionally prohibited from regulating some activities; not all countries will settle on the same approach, nor are all approaches available to all governments. The future of synthetic biology is certainly international, and attempts to regulate the emerging field will be all the more complex for the diverse concerns of the many countries and cultures engaged in the conversation.

Which brings me to considering the cause of concern, and the motivation for regulation. There is a long history in Western culture of fearing novelty and casting aspersions on those who seek it. The cautionary tale of Prometheus, who is punished in perpetuity for stealing fire from the gods and delivering it to humans, appears to be at the root of the matter. Similar warnings are made to those who would construct marvelous contrivances, such as the wings that took Icarus too close to the sun (though somehow cautionary tales usually fail to note that his father Daedalus, who actually built the wings of wax and feathers, survived). The builders of the Tower of Babel, reaching toward the heavens, also met with unpleasant consequences. Do not reach for the

stars without expecting a comeuppance. Something is evidently just not right with the passionate pursuit of new knowledge and the use of that knowledge to build new things--pursuits we today call science and engineering.

Some of this skepticism may be justified. Common experience informs us that not all new products wind up being beneficial to those who buy them or to the environment in which they are used. It would be foolish to insist that the deployment of new technologies comes with no risk. Indeed, one of Monsanto's early genetically modified cotton strains wound up failing miserably because a large fraction of the bolls mysteriously fell off before harvest. (10) And several examples exist of the transfer of herbicide resistance genes from genetically modified crops to wild varieties, both in the laboratory and in open field tests. (11) But how serious are these events? Just as the risks of new technologies are hard to judge, so are the potential costs of something going wrong. Honest proponents of new technologies must acknowledge that those costs could be large, and honest opponents must acknowledge that the costs could be relatively minor--we usually have no certain means of knowing in advance. Both sides would benefit from implementing the commission's recommendation to construct a mechanism for providing balanced, "hype-free" analysis of advances in the science and technology. It may also be that a broader concept of indemnification and restoration must be constructed to cover potential costs, whether economic or ecological. Often the debate comes down to whether we should attempt to forestall the potential of large costs at the expense of slowing innovation and limiting curiosity.

The commission's stance favors continued research in synthetic biology precisely because the threats of enormous societal and economic costs are vague and unsubstantiated. Moreover, there are practical implications of continued research that are critical to preparing for future challenges. The commission notes that "undue restriction may not only inhibit the distribution of new benefits, but it may also be counterproductive to security and safety by preventing researchers from developing effective safeguards." (12) Continued pursuit of knowledge and capability is critical to our physical and economic security, an argument I have been attempting to inject into the conversation in Washington, D.C., for a decade. The commission firmly embraced a concept woven into the founding fabric of the United States. In the inaugural State of the Union Address in 1790, George Washington told Congress "there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness." (13)

The pursuit of knowledge is every bit as important a foundation of the republic as explicit acknowledgment of the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Science, literature, art, and technology have played obvious roles in the cultural, economic, and political development of the United States. More broadly, science and engineering are inextricably linked with human progress from a history of living in dirt, disease, and hunger to ... today. One must of course acknowledge that today's world is imperfect; dirt, disease, and hunger remain part of the human experience. But these ills will always be part of the human experience. Overall, the pursuit of knowledge has vastly improved the human condition. Without scientific inquiry, technological development, and the economic incentive to refine innovations into useful and desirable products, we would still be scrabbling in the dirt, beset by countless diseases, often hungry, slowly losing our teeth.

Critics of the report complain that the commission papered over the risks of further technological development in favor of uncertain benefits. But these critics are often disingenuous about the benefits provided by science and technology to their own lives and well-being, and indeed to their ability to participate in the debate at all. Science supports our society and our economy, and technology is woven into the mechanisms of our participatory democracy. Biological technologies pose new challenges and risks, to be sure, with synthetic biology now providing exciting headlines. Yet those headlines rarely capture the true impact of new science and technology, and we are taking just the first steps in figuring out what the future will look like. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has not given us the final word on finding our way, but rather helped survey the terrain we are exploring. If biology is truly the science of the twenty-first century, we will need to frequently revisit this conversation so as not to lose our way from either undue haste or undue caution.

(1.) D. Gibson et al., "Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome," Science 329 (2010): 52-56.

(2.) N. Wade, "Researchers Say They Created a 'Synthetic Cell,'" New York Times, May 20, 2010.

(3.) I. Sample, "Craig Venter Creates Synthetic Life Form," The Guardian, May 20, 2010.

(4.) E. Pilkington, "I Am Creating Artificial Life, Declares US Gene Pioneer," The Guardian, October 6, 2007.

(5.) Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2010), iv.

(6.) Ibid., v.

(7.) A. Pollack, "U.S. Bioethics Commission Gives Green Light to Synthetic Biology," New York Times, December 16, 2010.

(8.) R. Carlson, Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).

(9.) See, J. Menon, "Swiss Re Warns on Nanotechnology Cover After Fish Brain Study," Bloomberg, May 10, 2004, com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aRGXSKtsyS0w&refer=uk; and W. Schaad, "Swiss Re's Perspective and Expectations", presentation at The Risk Governance of Nanotechnology Recommendations for Managing a Global Issue, Ruschlikon, Switzerland, July 6, 2006, Werner_Schaad_Swiss_Re_s_Perspective_and_Expectations_.pdf.

(10.) A. Myerson, "Monsanto Paying Delta Farmers to Settle Genetic Seed Complaints," New York Times, February 24, 1998.

(11.) Carlson, Biology Is Technology.

(12.) Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, New Directions, 5.

(13.) G. Washington, "The First State of the Union Address," January 8, 1790,
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.