Far Reaching Implications--A Review of Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise


Anyone who reads anything regarding biotechnology, often comes across the concept of synthetic biology and its prospect to revolutionize the field and positively impact human life — a sentiment that I share. In essence, synthetic biology is the engineering of biological systems and components, including organisms. CRISPR babies, 3 people children, gene defects edited away, creating life from scratch, and myriad other examples illustrate the power of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is not just the stuff of engineered organs for transplantation but also a force in such disparate fields ranging from vanilla beans to anti-malarials to tires. Even truffles — the most expensive food — are now the subject of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology, like all technologies, raises important questions regarding its use, its proliferation, its dissemination, and its overarching implications. This is especially true as it “makes biology easier to engineer” at 10 cents per base pair. To grasp the swirling discussions that surround synthetic biology from both a scientific and policy perspective, a primer can be invaluable in shaping one’s thinking, prompting new questions, spurring new integrations, and concretizing what for many is a nebulous concept.

Fortunately, a book my stellar colleague and friend, Gigi Kwik Gronvall, published in 2016 — which sat on my stack of books to read for way too long — serves as an excellent introduction to the subject that equally appeals both to those with advanced knowledge of the topic and those with a general interest. Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise is focused on highlighting the high-level policy issues that relate to technological development and importantly seeks not to curtail this life-enhancing technology, but to ensure it proliferates and its capacity for good is fully realized.

The book is divided into five chapters that address issues from four angles) security, safety, ethics/public engagement, US leadership/competitiveness) plus a chapter on the “New World” ushered in by synthetic biology. Throughout the book Gigi makes a point of warning about the consequences if synthetic biology is not kept relatively free “from the barnacles of bureaucracy” that “have made research harder, slower, and more expensive” — as the legendary Dr. David Franz puts it in the book’s introduction.

Gigi covers some of synthetic biology’s cardinal achievements such as the synthesis of the life-saving anti-malarial artemesinin and the “boot up” of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides genomere.

Some important points that are made and merit emphasis include:

  • “If the US is not on the leading technical edge of synthetic biology advances, it will be disadvantaged in setting rules and common practice for the governance of the technologies”

  • “Losing competitiveness in synthetic biology could also limit specific security applications on the horizon that are essential for national defense”

  • “It is important to note that there is no requirement for synthetic biology or other new technical advances in order to misuse biology or biological organisms” (though it is true that synthetic biology makes it possible to make a biological organism from scratch)

  • “Cutting and pasting together strings of DNA has been going on for decades in molecular biology and has thus far been proven exceptionally safe”

  • “For new technologies, there is a temptation to stifle innovation on the basis of fear of the unknown, but regulatory burdens can be counterproductive to security and safety”

“Every day is a biology news day” is the first sentence of chapter 1 and it is a great way to summarize this book and indeed all of biology. Biology, to me, is endlessly fascinating and represents one of the best examples of human’s success at first understanding themselves and the world around them and then reshaping it to further human life. Gigi’s book helps document that journey and provides a path forward that will allow this flourishing to continue.