Human Practices

Why Society Worries – Social Apprehensions toward Synthetic Biology

Bushra Khan, University of Ottawa iGEM Team

Synthetic Biology (SB) encompasses the fields of biology and engineering; it attempts to redesign biological systems and functions in novel ways that are not seen in the natural world. Some of the key technologies found under this umbrella are sequencing (reading DNA) and fabrication (rewriting DNA). These have paved the way for competitions such as iGEM, where teams are challenged to build biological systems that are functionally operative within living cells. SB has allowed for major advancements in regenerative medicine and therapeutic science, from altering the genetics of an unborn fetus to changing how food is grown, produced and manufactured; the opportunities for this type of science are endless. Nonetheless, it has become the caveat of contemporary Western society since its development by Dr. Barbara Hobom in the early 1980s (Benner & Sismour, “Synthetic Biology”).

The issue that most individuals who oppose SB have is that if individuals are able to change the natural outcomes of things, they are interfering with a random process and essentially becoming creators of life. This anti-SB civil movement has deep roots in various religions including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which is why it is beginning to affect political and social behaviour globally. Furthermore, advocacy groups including: Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union have been created to voice societies’ apprehensions about this science (Miller, “5 Guiding Principles”). As a result, these organizations slammed the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSB) for publishing pro-SB recommendations in late 2010. The report advised that SB investigations should continue without federal / governmental regulations in order to create solutions to problems with regard to non-renewable resources, large-scale food production and restoring damaged ecosystems (Presidential Commission, “New Directions”). This failed to address social apprehensions but rather as Friends of the Earth biotechnologist Eric Hoffman stated, “’business as usual’ [had] won out over precautions against genetic organisms that should have been in the report” implying that the PCSB supports continuing research only for their economic value (Miller, “5 Guiding Principles”).

Needless to say, anti-SB organizations are dissatisfied with minimal regulation in research. Without proper controls and checks in the research field, these organizations worry that synthetic organisms will escape into the natural environment without their effectiveness ever being tested. This is most concerning in the context of large-scale food production. Foodstuffs are grown locally but sold globally; if health issues do arise in relation to certain foods, it is hard to determine where the food is originally from, how it was treated and whether it was genetically modified at all. Thus, containing outbreaks caused by food is exponentially harder and potentially even impossible; the human cost of unbounded SB exploration could be grave. However, the anti-SB movement is not limited to environmental organizations and public interest groups but rather science watchdogs including those who testified before the PCSB about the consequences of its recommendations. The PCSB advocates non-regulation because of the addition of suicide genes to synthetic organisms. Suicide genes are a safety mechanism because they activate the apoptosis pathway in healthy cells by inducing the destruction of the p53 protein (Guynup, “A Suicide Gene”). This is the opposite of the mechanism seen in cancer cells where the p53 proteins are activated causing the cell to replicate continuously.

Consequently, the aim of suicide genes is that these organisms will not be able to survive without maintenance in a lab or commercial setting, thus unable to exist in the wild. Nonetheless, experts dispute that the effectiveness of these genes has not been confirmed and “this technology cannot guarantee any level of environmental safety (Miller, “5 Guiding Principles”).” Jim Thomas of the Environmental Technology Centre goes further to say “[t]he PCSB has not treated seriously, the threats SB poses to the environment … [and] do not adequately address the impact escaped synthetic microbes will have on ecosystems” (Friends of the Earth, “Recommendations on Synthetic Biology”). Therefore, the outcry from both the general public and the scientific world itself is evident in that further research needs to be done to confirm the safety and validity of SB. Both groups agree that continued apprehension of its technologies is justified and increased regulation of SB research must occur along with the cessation of its use in the commercial environment.

Although the concerns of these groups are valid, scientific research is headed towards solving the issues of the natural world through scientific interference; the main premise of SB. By implementing the reductionism method, where the functioning of an organism is simplified to its fundamental processes. Research is now more focused on fixing specific problems meaning that genetic modifications will only increase in the future. Hence, an understanding of SB and the methods it implements is required as opposed to rejection. It is difficult to argue with the entrenched views of religion that humanity must not “become creators or life” or “learn to play god.” As Daniel Dennett, a pro-SB bioethics philosopher states, scientists should focus on educating others on the positive aspects of SB and its results (Dennett, “The Folly of Pretence”). The University of Ottawa’s iGEM team attempts to implement this idea through the introduction of middle school and high school students to our project and the science behind it. The goal in this case is not only to initiate an interest in science from an early age, but also to teach them about SB. Through this community outreach project, the team hopes to show younger generations about how to formulate an opinion about new scientific discoveries based on research and avoid outright rejection. More global attempts at improving the public image of SB have also been made, they include: increased awareness of bio-safety, bio-risk and bio-security especially after the September 11th terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax scare (Presidential Commission, “New Directions”).

Consequently, SB is a growing field of scientific research that has many possibilities to improve human life but there are equally as many follies. In order to continue studying and exploring it whilst removing social apprehension, increased education and awareness of SB is needed. The iGEM competition is a great instance of an activity that attempts to improve the outlook society has towards SB and paves the way for scientific learning from a younger age.

Works Cited

Benner, Steven & Michael Sismour. Synthetic Bioogy. Department of Chemistry, University of Florida, July 2005. Web. 20 September 2011.

Dennett, Daniel. The Folly of Pretence. The Guardian, 16 July 2009. Web. 23 September 2011.

Friends of the Earth. Groups Criticize Presidential Commission’s Recommendations on Synthetic Biology. 16 Dec. 2010. Web. 23 Sep. 2011.

Guynup, Sharon. A Suicide Gene. Genome News Network, May 2000. Web. 23 September 2011.

Miller, Jennifer. Presidential Commission Releases Report on Synthetic Biology: The Commission’s 5 Guiding Principles. Bioethics International, Jan. 13, 2011. Web. 24 September 2011.

Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. New Directions – The Ethics of Synthetic Biology & Emerging Technologies. Dec. 2010. Web. 21 September 2011.