Philip Ball is no alarmist, but as consultant editor of Nature,1 he had sobering words last week about things that could go wrong in the new field of synthetic biology, where scientists are tinkering with cells to create artificial life forms:
The expanding toolbox of ways to re-engineer microbes – and even construct new ones – has opened up extraordinary possibilities for biomedical discovery and environmental engineering. But it also carries potential dangers that could eclipse the concerns already raised about genetic engineering and nanotechnology. If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge.
Humans are taking existing design to new levels. “Synthetic biology,” Ball explains, is the logical corollary of the realization that cells, like mechanical or electronic devices, are exquisitely ‘designed’ – albeit by evolution rather than on the drawing board. Their functions are enacted by circuits of interacting genes.” But can we trust humans putting them back on the drawing board? He gives some nightmare scenarios:
- Artificial disease: “In a dramatic demonstration of the potential risks, virologist Eckard Wimmer at the State University of New York at Stony Brook announced in 2002 that his team had built live poliovirus from scratch using mail-order segments of DNA and a viral genome map that is freely available on the Internet. The feat put a spotlight on the possibility that bioterrorists could create even more dangerous organisms – including Ebola, smallpox and anthrax – perhaps endowing them with resistance to antibiotics.” Wimmer’s feat took three years, but last November, Craig Venter took only three weeks to concoct a virus that infects bacteria. And soon, synthetic bacteria themselves may move from concept to reality.
- New living things: “And researchers are getting close to determining the smallest set of genes necessary to support a living cell, which might make it possible to cook up new life forms.”
- New molecular machines: “In a parallel development, other researchers have been tinkering with the building blocks of genes and proteins themselves. Naturally occurring proteins are built from a standard set of 20 amino acids. Although these are enough to produce protein chains with a staggering array of functions, expanding this repertoire might enable the design of biomolecules with new functions, such as protein-based drugs that resist being broken down in cells.” Already, some 80 unconventional amino acids have been artificially incorporated into proteins….
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