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Synthetic life

      Last Friday’s issue of Science contained a paper announcing the creation of a synthetic chromosome by a team of scientists headed up by the biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter. Venter is a very controversial figure. He was described as the ‘bête noire of the scientific establishment’ by Colin Blakemore in an article that appeared in The Observer on Sunday. Blakemore calls for a public debate to establish a regulatory framework for research on synthetic life. He suggests that in the absence of such a debate we may see legitimate concerns about the risks of synthetic life hijacked by religious organisations, such as the Catholic Church, who worry about scientists ‘playing God’. And religious organisations are not the only organisations that have had an emotional response to synthetic life. The Canadian biotechnology lobby organisation, the ETC group, who call for a moratorium on the release and commercialisation of synthetic life forms have a comic strip, prominently displayed on their website, which ends with the birth of Synthia, a ‘new species of bacterium with entirely human-made DNA’, replete with an evil-looking face and little horns on its head.

      The potential benefits of research on synthetic life are many. Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics suggest that we might one day be able to create life forms that form the basis of new environmentally friendly fuels, as well as new life forms that consume pollution and reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby reducing the threat of climate change. On the other had the risks involved in the creation of new life are also significant. It may be possible for new and dangerous infectious organisms to be created that will kill on a massive scale. Even if these are not deliberately created, organisms are typically capable of reproducing and mutating, and we might end up inadvertently creating dangerous organisms.

      Suppose, though, that we do manage to limit the needed public debate about the regulation of research on synthetic life to issues of risks and benefits. Will this lead to the rationally-based regulatory framework that Blakemore hopes for? One major stumbling block here is that there is no generally agreed on approach to the regulation of risk. The risk management community is divided between those who advocate an approach in which an attempt is made to weight the potential costs and benefits of new technology and those who adopt a ‘precautionary approach’, in which we pay most attention to the potential risks of new technology.

      In Europe the precautionary approach, enshrined in the 2000 European Commission Communication on the Precautionary Principle, dominates risk management. But even if we adopt the precautionary approach it is not clear how to apply it in the case of research on synthetic life. It might appear that the way to apply the precautionary approach is to focus on the risks directly presented by synthetic life and to discount the potential benefits of synthetic life advertised by Synthetic Genomics. But this would be to consider risks and benefits in an artificially narrow frame. The potential benefits of synthetic life are themselves ways to respond to other risks that face us. If we decide not to take the risk of researching the possibilities of synthetic life then we take the risk of missing out on a possible solution to problems related to the risk of climate change.

      The precautionary approach, applied consistently, leads to regulatory paralysis, suggesting both that we do not risk conducting research on synthetic life, as we need to avoid creating dangerous organisms, and that we do not risk not conducting research on synthetic life as we need to avoid potentially dangerous climate change. Advocates of the precautionary approach to risk management typically do not experience the sensation of being lead into paralysis, however, because they typically do not apply their favoured approach consistently. Instead, they typically consider the regulation of one piece of technology and focus only on the immediate risks that it raises, in isolation from consideration of the management of a broader set of risks. Blakemore’s call for a rational debate about a regulatory framework for synthetic life is to be welcomed. However, ensuring that religious groups do not hijack this debate is not enough to ensure that it will be a rational debate. We do not agree about how to balance risks and benefits and some of the intellectual tools that are commonly employed in such debates, such as the precautionary principle, can themselves lead us to irrational conclusions either in the form of intellectual paralysis or in the form of a myopic focus on particular risks.

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