Dr. William Mohn

From 2011.igem.org

Team: British Columbia - 2011.igem.org

Interview with Dr. William Mohn

Professor, UBC Department of Microbiology and Immunology (Dr. Mohn's Bio)

1. Do you think synthetic organisms should be released into the wild?

Under some circumstances, it’s okay. An important consideration is cost/benefit analysis. It’s got to be justified. For example, I’m not in favor of GM crops because there’s no good reason for it. On the other hand, a genetically modified bacterium used for bioremediation, which has a greater benefit, has more clear and predictable consequences. It’s a matter of how well we understand the modification and how badly we need it.

2. What standards would you recommend for their release?

It ought to be a scientifically based decision, not an ethical decision. There’s got to be high confidence that we understand the nature of the modification. If you’re doing something that’s altering competitiveness of organisms or using traits that are detrimental, it’s pretty easy to see that’s a high risk. Again, this goes back to the importance of what you’re trying to do.

3. What challenges are there in terms of attaining public acceptance?

The biggest challenge is there are a lot of people who are not open to a rational discussion of the risks and the benefits. You can’t change some people’s minds.

4. What future directions do you see for synthetic biology?

Hypothesis testing. I think that’s a much more short term proposition than downstream applications in industrial settings. We’re closer to be using synthetic biology to test hypotheses about predicting behavior than we are about applications.

5. Do you think we should be rewriting the code of life?

Note: “Code of Life” was interpreted by Dr. Mohn as the creation of a synthetic organism from scratch.

No. We don’t know enough to do it. “The code of life” sounds like a euphemism for creating totally synthetic organisms, e.g. start from scratch. It’s not very feasible.