In 2003, the polio virus was the first living organism to be synthesised in a laboratory. The polio virus is relatively small; the complete genome consists of only 7741 DNA base pairs. In 2010, the first bacterial chromosome was recreated using data files that described the genetic material of a bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides. This bacterium, popularly called Synthia, shows that researchers are now capable of recreating DNA and putting it in a cell so that it functions.
This process is called synthetic biology, and is normally used in connection with the recreation or creation of new DNA by means of controlled chemical processes in the laboratory. There are great expectations that this will make it possible to combine different genes so that entirely new biochemical and chemical reactions can take place in cells. There are hopes that it will be possible to make new products (medicines, new sources of energy and new materials) or that the production of known materials can be made more efficient and environmentally friendly. It is hoped, for example, that synthetic biology can be used to develop algae that use solar energy with increased efficiency and that produce oils suitable for biofuel. Work is also in progress to get yeast cells to manufacture the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, which also shows promise for cancer treatment.
In parallel with the high expectations, there is uncertainty regarding possible unintentional effects of the manufacture or functioning of these entirely new substances. Even though we know many genes and properties, and have methods for combining the genes, we lack knowledge of the extremely complex interplay among the genes. What happens in a cell when we insert new genes? Can we predict what new substances will be formed? Are we playing God by creating new life? Are we too arrogant? Fundamental biological, ethical and religious questions of this nature should be investigated if we are going to use this new technology to solve important societal challenges or to repair man-made problems. Synthetic biology is strongly linked to climate problems. It is argued that it can be used to find environmentally friendly means of manufacturing biofuels for use in aviation. Another area is the possibility of recreating historic species such as mammoths, by manipulating elephant DNA. Threatened species could also be saved since the technology mat circumstance present dependency of individuals to propagate the species. Could such use of synthetic biology lead to us solving some of our problems, or are we creating new ones?
There are also concerns associated with bioterrorism. Could the knowledge acquired through constructing viruses and bacteria also be used for evil purposes, and lead to dangerous synthetic viruses getting out of control? Gain of function research is already being conducted. This entails adding genes that enable animal viruses to infect new species (humans) in an attempt to understand what imposes constraints on the spread of natural viruses.
Synthetic bacteria - dualism
As a result of advances in gene technology in the laboratory in recent years, we are able today to recreate small living organisms such as bacteria. This is only possible because we now have machines that permit us to learn the genetic structure and regulation, and machines that can assemble DNA into genes (DNA synthesisers). Advances in bioinformatics have been particularly crucial. The first synthetically produced living bacterium, Synthia, was created using natural genetic material and thus contains no novel genes created by humans. The creation of Synthia does, however, prove that it is possible to build a bacterium and create life in the laboratory. This paves the way for new possibilities, such as putting together amino acids to build genes or genetic fragments that are not found in nature. One such objective might be to solve a societal problem, but the technology could also be used in more controversial fields such as military research and terrorism (bioterrorism).
This dualism gives rise to research ethics questions such as who should be involved in considering whether the objectives and methods of the research project are in conflict with generally accepted values (see Research and society), and how biosafety can best be maintained.
Socially responsible innovation and the precautionary principle
For whom and for what purpose do we want to develop new technologyr, what resources are to be used, and who is going to decide, are important ethical questions. With new technology, we have the possibility of discussing these questions before large appropriations are made and projects have commenced. This has to do with responsible innovation, and with synthetic biology it is still possible.
Uncertainty with regard to which products synthetic biology can lead to, and concern for unforeseen effects, has caused discussion about the need to invoke the precautionary principle. There is fierce debate on the question of what implications the application of a precautionary attitude should have for research. (See also Risk and uncertainty, Uncertainty, risk and the precautionary principle in Guidelines for research ethics in science and technology, and Risk and Uncertainty - As a Research Ethics Challenge). As synthetic biology is still a new technology, we have the opportunity to conduct precautionary motivated research along with the development of new products and processes, so that both innovation potential and health and environmental safety are taken account of at the same time.
Another question is how synthetic biology is to be regulated. Do we need to regulate the use of synthetic biology when the intention is to make an identical copy of a naturally occurring bacterium, animal or plant?, On the other hand, when synthetic biology is used to create an entirely new organism, should this organism be regulated as a genetically modified organism (GMO) under existing gene technology legislation? Must animals recreated from extinction be treated as an invasive species? Can researchers themselves regulate the field by establishing a code of conduct? Self-regulation may be questionable from the point of view of research ethics, as most researchers will find it difficult to combine a strong desire to develop a new technology with a critical evaluation of the possible societal aspects and risk to health and the environment.
Commercial exploitation of genes becomes a particularly relevant issue in light of developments in synthetic biology. Patents are regarded as beneficial since they promote innovation and the development of new products and processes. Synthetic biology circumvents the debate associated with biotechnology and gene technology where the value-based criticism "life cannot be patented" has raised the question of who the rightful owner is. Patenting in the field of synthetic biology may lead to less transparency (see Confidentiality) and to inequity since poor countries do not have the knowledge or resources to create or purchase synthetic products. The research ethics complications of patenting should therefore be investigated more closely. The same applies to initiatives to promote open sharing of information that have emerged in connection with synthetic biology, such as the iGEM and BioBricks initiatives.
This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jane Thompson, Akasie språktjenester AS.