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.

Scorpion Grants My Wish: An Infectious Disease Episode

Last week I hoped Scorpion, the new CBS show about a team of geniuses that assists the Department of Homeland Security, would focus on an infectious diseases as well as other problems. Well, this week they granted my wish and they were immersed in responding to a pathogen, related to the common cold virus, synthesized specifically to infect the California governor's daughter and a few others.

What the Scorpion team was facing was a biohacker who employed synthetic biology for a sinister purpose. Synthetic biology, the realm of biology that deals with the creation of novel genetic sequences, holds tremendous promise for curing disease, specifically targeting therapy as part of personalized medicine, and revolutionizing biotechnology. 

However, just like almost every trade, there are dual-use concerns with the rise of synthetic biology, the biohacker movement, and DIY biology. I share some of these concerns but have an overriding fundamental belief that all these developments are essentially good and representative a major advice for mankind. 

While the show requiring some suspension of disbelief--an antidote was made in two hours--it is good to see these issues penetrating into popular culture.


Don't Get Too Wound Up About Synthetic Biology

I just finished the book The Windup Girl  by Paolo Bacigalupi a dystopian novel set in the future.  The book was recommended by a physician colleague who knew of my interest in bioterrorism and plagues. 

The story of The Windup Girl revolves around agricultural company executives who produce engineered foods ("calorie men"), corrupt government officials, and an engineered human (aka a windup girl) winding there ways through a futuristic Thailand.

The book mentions past plagues that have destroyed crops (e.g. blister rust, cibiscosis) and infected humans leading "generippers" to utilize the tools of synthetic biology to devise new organisms (including humans) resistant to these pathogens. An outbreak of a new disease also transpires leading government officials to take action in a village in which victims resided. 

I found the book to be engaging despite the fact that, at times, it was reminiscent of Frankenstein in its depiction of "excesses" of industrial society and skewed portrayal of the promise of synthetic biology.

However, bioterrorism directed at agriculture is not fictional and is a major concern. Not only can agricultural products be used as vehicles to deliver noxious substances (e.g. mercury injected into citrus fruits), but contaminating them with specific pathogens can lead to food shortages and major economic disruptions.

The promise of crops, animals, and--eventually--humans impervious to infection would be an unequivocal life-enhancing utopian development.

While some may see these developments leading to a dystopian future, I believe it is fictional.