Why we shouldn’t be afraid of synthetic biology

No # today, because this is a science blogging post and not A Thing I Have Learned.

I just read a fantastically interesting New York Times article on Craig Venter and his attempt to create artificial life. It’s a great lay introduction to synthetic biology, how it works and the potential it has to (I am not kidding) save the world…


The NYT article mentions several times that synthetic biology is a field that people find scary and that a discussion of the ethics surrounding it “is a conversation we need to have”. I agree, but when I came to think about it, I realised I don’t know exactly what that means. Who should be having this conversation? I thought at first the answer was “them”, which is the same as “someone other than me” and also “no one”. But actually “they” have already talked about it. From the linked article:

In 2010, President Obama ordered his bioethics commission to examine the implications of Venter’s work, and the commission found “limited risks.” Still, a person can be forgiven for recalling the moment in “Jurassic Park” when Dr. Ian Malcolm smirks at a team of genetic engineers and warns them, “Life finds a way.”

Ahhh. So. A group of experts spoke to a group of policy makers and explained the risks and the policy makers were satisfied that there weren’t many, but “we” still need to converse about this because of a line in a film.

Scientists off independently creating artificial life does sound very frightening indeed and a recipe for disaster. It also sounds like an affront to whatever supernatural being you may credit with providing whatever spark you consider to be the difference between “life” and “not life”. It sounds like a gothic horror novel plot and I understand why any article discussing it is always followed by comments to the effect that “it’s just not natural”

When the people whose job it is to discuss these matters did so the results were not enough to set the minds of the wider population at rest. Obviously they are not the people who need to be having this conversation then, so who is?

Given the lack of trust and understanding, it seems pretty clear that any conversation about this needs to include the scientists on the coal face, someone to interpret from Scientist into Normal Person and, um, everyone else[2].

Right. *Rolls up sleeves* Let’s do this. LET’S CONVERSE!

The first knotty problem we have is something of a Gordian one, because before we can debate the ethics of creating life, we first have to define it[2]. This is something scientists and philosophers have struggled with for millennia and one of the reasons it’s so hard to figure out is because there is no clear dividing line between “life” and “not life”. Viruses, for example, are the best known things that exist somewhere between the two, and they are not the alone.

Let’s start by considering some things I think we can all agree on:

Humans = alive
Bicycle = not alive

Bacteria = alive
DNA = not alive

Minimal Venter cell[3] = alive
Protein[4] and fat[5] = not alive

The problem is, humans, bacteria and minimal venter cells are all made from just DNA, protein and fats (but not bicycles)[6].

There is something that happens when you mix all these non-alive components together that results in life. Until recently, we didn’t understand how that could happen, so we filled the gap with things like God. But that isn’t true anymore, and a lot of that is thanks to Craig Venter, which is why he (and the hundreds of researchers working for him) will be able to make their minimal cell very soon.

There is no magic spark, it’s just that when you have the right instructions (DNA), machines to do the work (proteins) and a container to put it all in (fats), it works. We know how to make the bits, we know how they interact and we know how to put them together. When we do, we get life.

But messy, non Venter-created,life is incredibly complex. Although we now know enough to build the smallest set of DNA instructions required to get something that can chug along in a vat, when it comes to even the tiniest of naturally occurring bacteria, there’s still a huge amount we don’t yet understand. When you scale that up to the complex interactions between cells in larger organisms and between organisms in populations, then we are only barely beginning to grasp even the scale of the difficulty.

And it’s what we don’t know that has historically been the problem with all our previous attempts to control life. When we introduced cane toads to Australia to control cane beetles we didn’t have the faintest idea of the complex interplay between the species already there and what introducing an aggressive newcomer might do, and so we inadvertently created a bigger issue that we still don’t know how to fix.

Human beings are like a group of monkeys pressing buttons at random on a computer. We don’t understand what’s going on inside the box, but we know that some buttons give us fruit and some give us horse apples. We desperately want more bananas and so we are compelled to try and figure out which is which. The entire scientific method is designed to get to the answers as efficiently and quickly as possible, but we still get it wrong sometimes at that leads to manure.

Monkey Craig Venter doesn’t understand the computer either, but he has figured out where the the power source is, and he’s found the plug for the hatch that hides the fruit bowl. Monkey Craig will never get poo because he bypassed the complicated black box he didn’t understand and plugged the cable for the hatch into the mains.

Craig Venter’s minimal cell contains only the bare essential DNA instructions, and the system it describes is simple enough that we understand everything about how it works. As he builds in the extra complexity required to turn pollution into biofuel, or whatever world changing application he tries first, it will be incremental and it will proceed at the same pace as our understanding.

“What I cannot create, I cannot understand” was left written on Richard Feynmen’s blackboard after he died. It may not hold true for everything, but it is certainly true that being able to build something signals a very high understanding.In Jurassic Park, the scientists didn’t understand the implications of what they were doing, because they were using incredibly complex naturally occurring organisms. Of course something went wrong! But Craig Venter isn’t doing that, he’s putting DNA, proteins and fats together and building something from the bottom up: he understands it because he made it.

I said above that we understand everything about how the DNA in Venter’s minimal cells works. That’s a slight exaggeration; we understand most of it and we understand enough to be pretty certain there aren’t any nasty surprises waiting for us in the rest. And this is where the caveats comes in. Until we really do know everything about the DNA instructions in these cells we must continue to proceed with extreme caution and to study them carefully, which Venter is.

Most scientists playing around with life are still pressing buttons at random on systems they don’t understand. This is all a normal part of progress. It’s well regulated and safe guards are in place to make it as safe as possible; we have decided, as a species, that the benefits outweigh the risks. Craig Venter’s research is not completely without danger, but no research is and it is considerably safer than what everyone else is doing.

It is important when we talk about creating life that we remember what that means in terms of molecules interacting inside soap bubbles, because if we panic and shut this down because of a line in Jurassic Park the opportunities we will lose are staggering.

1. You knew there was a “but” coming there didn’t you?
2. Oh bugger.
3. That’s a cell, like a bacterial cell, that contains only the bits required to survive and reproduce and none of the DNA which codes for extra things like “be a human”.
4. Proteins are the work horses of the cell. The DNA contains the instructions and the proteins do the work. The instructions the DNA contains are usually “build a protein that does A”. In a cow’s muscles, arrays of vast numbers of proteins do the mechanical work that moves a cow towards a tasty patch of grass, or a delicious looking duck. That’s why, when we talk about eating meat, we talk about eating “protein”. Meat is muscle, and muscle is mostly protein.
5. If you’ve ever watched Fight Club, you will know that it is possible to turn fat into soap. You should also know that soap forms bubbles when mixed with water (if you don’t know that, please stand far away from me). You can think of the envelope that forms the walls of a cell as a kind of soap bubble. Without the fatty soap-bubble container, there is no cell, which is why we talk about “omega 3″ and “omega 6″ and the importance of eating enough oily fish.
6. There are a few other essential vitamins and minerals as well that are also definitely not alive on their own. Most notably iron, which is sort of like saying “bicycles”.
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