Jonny Hughes: Why we need to talk about synthetic biology

It is already four years since Chinese researchers became the first to edit genes in a human embryo and now three months since the geneticist He Jiankui created global controversy by announcing the birth of gene-edited twin girls in China.

Most scientists agreed He had jumped the gun, claiming the world wasn’t yet ready for designer babies nor the commercialisation of genome editing before we have had the chance to fully assess the ethical and practical implications of such technology.

The general assertion from the research community was that, perhaps more than any other scientific breakthrough before it, the discovery of gene-editing could have profound implications not just for how the human race evolves, but potentially the future of every other species on the planet.

Synthetic biology is defined as ‘a scientific discipline that relies on chemically synthesized DNA, along with standardised and automatable processes, to address human needs by the creation of organisms with enhanced characteristics or traits’.

In simple terms this means manipulating genes in organisms so they are more able to provide us with enhanced supplies of food, energy, medicines and materials whilst helping us mitigate and adapt to the effects of challenges like climate change.

Synthetic biology and genome editing will almost certainly have big, and largely unpredictable, effects on global ecosystems in the coming decades.

Jonny Hughes

In the field of nature conservation synthetic biology has gone largely unnoticed with the odd exception, such as ongoing efforts by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to develop a policy on the subject.

This lack of awareness is worrying. Synthetic biology and genome editing will almost certainly have big, and largely unpredictable, effects on global ecosystems in the coming decades.

On the one hand there could be a chance to design crops which could produce enhanced yields enough to feed a population of nine billion people by 2050. On the other hand, the release of novel ‘super-organisms’ into the environment might create irreversible, possibly chaotic domino effects.

Given the enormous complexity of the web of life, even the most powerful supercomputer cannot predict what will happen to the functioning of ecosystems when gene-manipulated organisms are routinely introduced into the natural environment.

Then there are Jurassic Park style attempts to use synthetic biology tools to bring back species such as the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon from extinction. These projects are expensive and slow, but it is only a matter of time before breakthroughs are made. What place will these formerly extinct species have in modern day ecosystems? Will they be considered ‘natural’, or invasive species from the past?

Passenger pigeon © James St. John
Work to revive extinct species such as passenger pigeons raises important ecological questions © James St. John

That’s the problem with synthetic biology. It raises so many imponderable questions it is difficult to know where to start in developing a coherent and defensible policy position which harnesses the opportunities of the technology whilst minimising the risks.

One thing is for sure; we need to talk about synthetic biology. That discussion must involve scientists, philosophers and policy makers but also wider society. The temptation to play God by engineering a life free from disease where all our worldly needs are catered for by genetically manipulated species may in the end be too compelling not to embrace fully.

Indeed, given the failure of current policies to tackle the twin problems of climate change and biodiversity loss, we may have no choice but to turn to synthetic biology and genome editing to maintain a habitable planet. The trick is to do this in a way which respects the sanctity of nature. That means giving nature the space to evolve naturally while exercising extreme caution in using our new found powers as engineers of the stuff of life.

Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive

This article first appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 5 March

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Preface

It is already four years since Chinese researchers became the first to edit genes in a human embryo and now three months since the geneticist He Jiankui created global controversy …

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