By Kevin E. Noonan --
Keith Olbermann, former ESPN co-anchor of SportsCenter and for the past few years the host of MSNBC's Countdown, has noted the correlation between bad political news for the Bush administration and heightening of terror threat warnings (see "The Nexus of Politics and Terror," Countdown, 10/12/2005). While not in a position to allege a functional connection between politics and the politics of fear, the coincidences mentioned by Mr. Olbermann are intriguing, to say the least.
The power of our fear of terrorism to drive out (or at least suppress) rational decision-making has arisen again, this time concerning recent advances in synthetic biology. An article in The Washington Post yesterday (see "Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms") warns us that "safety concerns also loom large" with respect to this technology. Some of these concerns are the traditional ones that have been with us from the earliest days of biotechnology; Jeremy Rifkin first came to national notice for spearheading passage by the Cambridge City Council of a (fortunately, short-lived) ban on recombinant DNA at the university laboratories in that city (see "Promotion Versus Precaution: The Evolution of Biotechnology Policy in the United States"). More recently, work to isolate the influenza virus from frozen corpses who died of the "Spanish flu" of 1918 (that killed millions worldwide) raised similar concerns, as has work with Ebola and smallpox. Less well known is work to resurrect endogenous human retroviruses. None of these efforts was without valid scientific validation. The influenza work was aimed at identifying whether there was a specific configuration of the hemaglutinnin (H) and neuraminidase (N) gene alleles that made that flu particularly virulent, as a way of predicting (and perhaps addressing, whether by prophylaxis or treatment) the more recent Asian "bird flu" that is threatening to become another pandemic. And the human retrovirus work is important for understanding why 8% of the human genomic DNA sequenced by the Human Genome Project encodes deactivated embodiments of ancient viruses believed to be important in human evolution (for example, the mammalian placenta; see "Darwin's Surprise").
Similar practical aims underlie the efforts to develop synthetic bacteria, notably by J. Craig Venter and others (see "Patenting Life (Really)" and "Patenting Life (Part II)"). As mentioned in The Washington Post article, the hope is that such synthetic bacteria will be useful for making chemical compounds, drugs, and biofuels more cheaply. In many ways, this is an extension of the technology used to make human erythropoietin in hamster cells, or human growth hormone or insulin in bacterial cells. The synthetic bacteria are expected to be superior, because their genomes will lack the plethora of native genes encoding other, non-essential proteins, and thus the synthetic machinery of the cell will be more focused on making the desired product.
These efforts are opposed by groups, like the Canadian Environment, Technology and Concentration, and up until now the argument has been over proprietary rights to synthetic biology technology. These concerns are voiced by Dr. Tom Knight and Dr. Drew Eady of MIT, who believe that efforts by Dr. Venter's group and others are an improper attempt to monopolize the field. (While eminent scientists, it is important to note that these arguments are not, at present, supported by any legal principle or precedent.) Jim Thomas and the ETC group are the first to play the terrorism card with regard to synthetic biology. According to a recent report from the group, "[u]ltimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet." According to the ETC report, "[t]he danger is not just bio-terror but bio-error," nicely combining the traditional Frankenstein (or, more recently, Franken-food) fears of technology outstripping human capacity to restrain it with the terror of terrorism. ETC disdains the efforts made by all synthetic biologists to engineer these bacteria against errant introduction into the environment, asserting that "we've heard that before" when confronted with the enfeebled nature of these synthetic organisms. After all, according to Jim Thomas, ETC's program manager, genes engineered into crops have been found in other plants. Ignored by this analogy is that recombinant organisms, by definition, are merely the native plant or animal that has been genetically-engineered to contain an additional gene encoding a desired gene product, and that under these circumstances the likelihood that they may "escape" into the environment is difficult to reduce to zero. The synthetic organisms, in contrast, can be (and according to Dr. Venter, have been), so genetically crippled that they have multiple metabolic deficiencies that should prevent growth outside the laboratory environment.
While the possibility that this technology could get out of hand is remote, the fact that it is not impossible makes it even more important that the threat not be exaggerated, and that policymakers and the public not be influenced by appeals to irrational fears. In truth, bioweaponry exists in Tom Clancy novels (see "Rainbow Six" and "Executive Orders"), not in the real world, and the history of attempts to produce "weaponized" anthrax (an evolved, hardy, native bacterial species with a robust animal reservoir) and the failures of those efforts (see "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War") make it clear that producing any bioweapon, much less one that uses a far-from-robust synthetic bacteria, are at best far-fetched. Even more so is the provocative image of "'bio hackers'" working in garages" downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms attributed to unnamed "experts" in the article. Calls for government regulation, while appealing, also are not particularly comforting. After all, it was governments (including our own) that were at the forefront of developing biological weapons, and recent attempts to prevent or preclude specific lines of research by governmental fiat (such as the Bush administration's ban on federal funding of stem cell research) have been disastrous. Any similar ban for synthetic organisms is just as likely to be unavailing and to merely hurt innovation. "The cat is out of the bag," according to Jay Keasling (at left), chief of synthetic biology at the University of California at Berkeley (although it is likely that Mr. Thomas and those who agree with him would prefer that we think that "the genie is out of the bottle").
What is needed is what occurred at the first blush of biotechnology research: an agreement, much like the Asilomar conference agreement (Berg et al., 1975, "Summary Statement of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules," Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 72:1981-84), to a set of standards in the industry for ensuring the highest levels of safety so that the benefits of the technology can be developed. This is admittedly more difficult today, where so many of the participants are either commercial concerns or are funded by them. Other industries have developed standards, however, so it is not impossible to do so even amongst intellectual property owners. Given the diversity of the kinds of synthetic organisms that are being envisioned, and the impracticality of pursuing, much less expecting and even less likely obtaining, an overarching proprietary position in the current patenting climate, cooperation may turn out to be the economically-sensible position. This approach would also permit government to play a role in regulating, rather than banning, specific applications of synthetic biology technology.
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