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Trouble Brewing? The Ethical Significance of Synthetic Yeast

Back in 2010, I blogged about Craig Venter’s creation of the first synthetic organism, Synthia, a bacteria.

Now, in 2014, the next step has been made by a team at John Hopkins University, the use of synthetic biology in yeast, which, whilst still a simple organism, has a similar cell structure to humans (and other more complex organisms): a nuclei, chromosomes and organelles. The engineered yeast has been reproduced to over 100 generations, passing on its new DNA.

The pace is breathtaking. Moore’s law describes a phenomenon in computing, where computer capacity (so far) doubles every two years. Kurzweil uses Moore’s law to predict the ‘singularity’: a state where humans no longer control, or even comprehend, the progress that technology continues to make.

It’s difficult to measure scientific progress in the same way as computer power, but it’s clear that leaps in progress are now measured in years, not decades. Yet still we wait until technology is upon us before we act.

Consider a parallel technology: cloning. The earliest intimations of cloning were perhaps in 1885, when Hans Dreisch successfully divided sea urchin embryos. Yet it was not until Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1998 that we began to become concerned and consider deeply thoughts on human cloning. A moratorium on human cloning research was put in place in the US, and a ban in Europe. In industry, cloned animals are used in farming already, yet the EC and UK governments are apparently at loggerheads about whether to allow this to continue.

Synthetic biology, I believe, has far greater potential than straight forward cloning. But this potential includes great harms as well as great benefits.

Yeast is a prime example. It is already in use not only in alcohol and baking, but in the production of biofuels, and in cleaning up various forms of pollution. By using synthetic biology, we could enhance these uses, or extend them. These would be great benefits.

Yet it is also, naturally a pathogen, in some forms. It is estimated that over 600, 000 people die each year from cryptococcosis, a fungalinfection, which is fatal to the immune- compromised, but not for those with functioning immune systems. Synthetic biology could enhance this power to kill.

These are just a few examples. But synthetic biology, which writes its own DNA codes, is potentially unlimited. The Presidential Commission on Bioethics produced a report, which sought to calm our fears:

“The announcement …[of the creation of Venter’s Synthia] although extraordinary in many ways, does not amount to creating life as either a scientific or a moral matter. The feat therefore does not constitute the creation of life, the likelihood of which still remains remote for the foreseeable future.”

However, with Russell Powell and Tom Douglas, we have examined the ethical concerns related to synthetic biology. As I have said, creating life would not be the particular ethical issue (there is a lot around) but rather what kind of life – and the capacity to radically alter life is as powerful as the ability to create new life. Synthetic biology opens the door to unprecedented modification of life.

The President’s Commission is also sanguine about the risk of “dual use” in synthetic biology, where technology, whilst designed for beneficial purposes is repurposed towards harmful usage, such as the creation of viruses:

“most experts in the scientific community agree that mere knowledge of a viral genome is far from sufficient to be able to re-constitute it or create a disease-forming pathogen.”

In both cases, the threat being far away is sufficient for it to be considered negligible. This is a feature of our psychology. But threats which are far away, do materialize. The negative effects of climate change are beginning to materialize, for example.

But underlying the Commission’s apparently laissez-faire approach is a far greater problem. If there are significant risks of dual use, what should we do about them? Lord May and colleagues have spoken out against bird flu research for the same reason, calling it “irresponsible research that should never have been undertaken and should not be resumed.” Yet, for  synthetic biology, as the commission points out, the potential benefits  are hard to ignore. Do we call a moritorium on the research and therefore lose the benefits?

Ingmar Persson and I have called for research into moral enhancement, to address the weaknesses in our own psychology that allow us to brush aside major problems that are far away in favour of smaller but nearer problems. We have called for research into moral bioenhancement to decrease the likelihood of someone choosing to use technologies for evil purposes. As a solution, it is pretty far away, probably much further and slower than the coming to fruition of advances in synthetic biology.

But as our existential risks multiply, it might be an investment worth making. Many of the benefits that we look for today are really just spades to dig ourselves out of holes of our own making: we seek biofuels and pollution cleaners because we have used up our fuels, and left the waste behind. We seek an easy way out of this, and ignore the risks. Perhaps it is time we looked inwards and to the long term.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Three things (and congratulations to Julian Savulescu for addressing this complex issue):
    1) The paucity of articles and discussion on the ethical, moral and/or spiritual aspects of synthetic biology is stunning. Your article is the only one I could find in the first two pages of a google search on “ethical aspects of synthetic biology” to be published in the past three years;
    2) There is a huge scientific elephant in the room which I have not seen addressed: life as we know it has evolved, which requires substantial time and involves considerable complexity. The role of evolution and how it has worked to deliver the life forms we have now is inadequately researched and not well understood, yet synthetic biology proponents seem to treat ecological and evolutionary factors as noise to be ignored by their models;
    3) Our species has done a rather miserable job with the life forms that we have found on earth (Sixth Great Extinction, climate change, ocean acidification, topsoil loss and more). What evidence is there that we would, in fact could, use synthetic life forms productively in the long term?

  2. I do not accept, as your suggest, that the pace of scientific and technological progress is so breathtakingly fast. For those of us in the industrialised west, scientific and technological change over the last three or four decades has been proceeding at a somewhat pedestrian pace when compared with the rapid rate of change from about the 1870s to 1970s. For sure there have been great advances in computing and some other technologies, but if we compare the last few decades and what we can reasonably expect in the next one or two decades with the pre-1970s period, we cannot help but be struck by how much quicker science and technology progressed then and by the unprecedented pace of social, economic, political, artistic and indeed philosophical change that swept the world.

    There are signs that the rate of change is increasing, which is a bit worrying when we think about how so many people, Kurzweil being among them, struggle to understand what is happening at our current gentle pace. I agree that existing and emerging technologies do present us with some pretty daunting problems. You are also right that many of these technologies are responses to problems of our own making and do themselves create further and perhaps even greater problems. So why are you advocating another technological fix to counter these technological fixes?

    Fortunately there is not the slightest chance that the population of this country or any other country could be persuaded to take a moral enhancing drug or be compelled to do so by governments (not that any government would contemplate such an absurd proposal). Given the impossibility of instigating this technology fix, we can only speculate as to your motives for proposing it.

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