It would be great if we could release into the Gulf of Mexico a vat of bugs that did nothing but eat gobs of oil and digest it into harmless smaller bits. Then there is powering our cleanup vessels with microbes that munched seaweed and spit out fuel, so we'd no longer need to punch holes in the sea floor in the first place. Such is the promise of synthetic biology, which, is basically a marketing term for all kinds of research in which scientists tinker with different biological bits to make useful things....sort of like living Lego blocks.
The latest breakthrough in this field came last month, with news that bio-pioneer Craig Venter was said to have become the first to create life in the lab! What Venter did was replace the natural genome in a cell with a slightly modified synthetic one, which then issued orders by which the cell reproduced and brought science a little further into the realm of science fiction. He named this new life form Synthia.
The gift of man-made life comes wrapped in a risk, a Big Risk! What if that oil-eating bug mutates, as the horror-movie version inevitably does and starts eating other things....like us? It's perhaps not surprising that when bioethicists describe synthetic biology, they sound like the characters in Jurassic Park. "When dealing with biological entities, " notes Thomas Murray (president of the Hastings Centre, a bioethics organization), "life has a tendency to find a way." Accidents at power plants are bad enough, but a leak in a bioreactor could be worse, since bacteria can learn new tricks when you're not looking. Microbes excel at exchanging DNA, like "microbial French kissing"! "We have ways to go," says Murray, "before we can really know what risks we're running if we release these bugs into the environment."
All of which confirms the need for careful oversight, but we haven't proven very good at this. We are at the crossroads of science and politics and it is a dodgy place. Without public oversight, we are certain to wake up one day to news of some private breakthrough that rattles our spine: a human hybrid, a cloned child, a fetus grown solely to harvest its parts. The path of progress cuts through the four-way intersection of the Moral, Medical, Religious and Political. Venter's bombshell revived the oldest of ethical debates, over whether scientists are playing God or proving he does not exist because he re-enacted Genesis in suburban Maryland.
The Way I See It....people are bound to disagree about when scientists are crossing some moral Rubicon. That is all the more reason to debate, in public and in advance, where those boundaries lie---rather than doing so after the fact, when researchers are celebrating some technical triumph and the rest of us are wondering what price we will pay for it.