For thousands of years, humans have been selectively breeding crops and animals.
With the discovery of DNA hybridization in the early 1970s, it became possible to genetically modify existing organisms. Synthetic biology goes further: it refers to the creation of entirely new living organisms from standardized building blocks of DNA. The technology has been in development since the early 2000s, as knowledge and methods for reading, editing and designing genetics have improved, costs of DNA sequencing and synthesis have decreased, and computer modelling of proposed designs has become more sophisticated.
In 2010 Craig Venter and his team demonstrated that a simple bacterium could be run on entirely artificially-made DNA. Applications of synthetic biology that are currently being developed include producing biofuel from E. coli bacteria; designer organisms that act as sensors for pollutants or explosives; optogenetics, in which nerve cells are made light-sensitive and neural signals are controlled using lasers, potentially revolutionizing the treatment of neurological disorders; 3D-printed viruses that can attack cancer; and gene drives as a possible solution to insect-borne diseases.
Alongside these vast potential benefits are a range of risks. Yeast has already been used to make morphine; it is not hard to imagine that synthetic biology may allow entirely new pathways for producing illicit drugs. The invention of cheap, synthetic alternatives to high-value agricultural exports such as vetiver could suddenly destabilize vulnerable economies by removing a source of income on which farmers rely. As technology to read DNA becomes more affordable and widely available, privacy concerns are raised by the possibility that someone stealing a strand of hair or other genetic material could glean medically-sensitive information or determine paternity.
The risk that most concerns analysts, however, is the possibility of a synthetized organism causing harm in nature, whether by error or terror. Living organisms are self-replicating and can be robust and invasive. The terror possibility is especially pertinent because synthetic biology is “small tech” – it does not require large, expensive facilities or easily-tracked resources. Much of its power comes from sharing information and, once a sequence has been published online, it is nearly impossible to stop it: a “DIYbio” or “biohacker” community exists, sharing inventions in synthetic biology, while the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition is a large international student competition in designing organisms, with a commitment to open-sourcing the biological inventions.
Conceivably, a single rogue individual might one day be able to devise a weapon of mass destruction – a virus as deadly as Ebola and as contagious as flu. What mechanisms could safeguard against such a possibility? Synthetic biology and affordable DNA-sequencing also opens up the possibility of designing bespoke viruses as murder weapons: imagine a virus that spreads by causing flu-like symptoms and is programmed to cause fatal brain damage if it encounters a particular stretch of DNA found only in one individual.
Synthetic biology is currently governed largely as just another form of genetic engineering. Regulations tend to assume large institutional stakeholders such as industries and universities, not small and medium-sized enterprises or amateurs. The governance gap is illustrated by the controversy surrounding the very successful 2013 crowdsourcing of bioluminescent plants, which exploited a legal loophole dependent on the method used to insert genes. The Glowing Plants project, which aims ultimately to make trees function as street lights, was able to promise to distribute 600,000 seeds without any oversight by a regulatory body other than the discretion of Kickstarter. The project caused concern not only among activists against genetically-modified organisms, but also among synthetic biology enthusiasts who feared it might cause a backlash against the technology.
Differences can already be observed in the focus of DIYbio groups in Europe and the United States due to the differing nature of regulations on genetically-modified organisms in their regions, with European enthusiasts focusing more on “bio-art”. The amateur synthetic biology community is very aware of safety issues and pursuing bottom-up options for self-regulation in various ways, such as developing voluntary codes of practice. However, self-regulation has been criticized as inadequate, including by a coalition of civil society groups campaigning for strong oversight mechanisms. Such mechanisms would need to account for the cross-border nature of the technology, and inherent uncertainty over its future direction.
The Global Risks 2015 report is now live.
Author: Anders Sandberg is a James Martin Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
Image: British Professor Graham Jones shows a part of 2.5 meter-long model of DNA structure in central Sofia, March 18, 2003. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov