Monday, July 12, 2010

Synthetic Life?

Suman Sahai

Synthia, the nickname given to the first synthetic bacterium created recently, has stirred up a global debate. Is it new life or just an efficient copy of life as it exists? As research prowess goes, the latter is nothing to scoff at. What Craig Venter’s group has done is a technological breakthrough. The researchers have created what they call ‘artificial life’ by creating a newly synthesized genome using off the shelf biological reagents. They then put this artificial genome into the shell of a bacterium from which most of the genetic material had been scraped out. The artificial genome revived the bacterial shell and made it functional. Venter announced his group had created ‘synthetic life’. This claim immediately became controversial.

While Venter says this is the first ever synthetic cell that's been made and the first ever life form on the planet “whose parent is a computer”, others in his team have been more modest and said that they had only taken "baby steps" toward custom-making an organism. Scientists too have had differing responses, some say that the new bacterium could not be called artificial life, that science does not as yet know enough about biology to really create new life. Others called this an epochal breakthrough in biology. As a biologist myself, I would say that the new research is dazzling but it’s not quite creating life. The newness is that the new DNA has not been created by replicating the DNA of an organism but by reading the code of the organism stored in a computer and creating the DNA spelt out by that code using store bought building blocks (nucleotides). That I would say is a brilliant mimicking of life , not creating it de novo.

Whatever the nature of the breakthrough, one thing is certain, the trigger for it is overwhelmingly commercial. Venter and his partners stand to make a huge amount of money on the patents that are already being taken out on all the processes and products associated with synthetic biology. The same thing had happened when Francis Collins and he had announced in 2000 that they had mapped the human genome, a full three years ahead of the international Human Genome Program being managed by a consortium of scientists from across several countries. A spate of patents on human gene sequences and even parts of genes followed. Many of these were not accepted as patentable subject matter because the function of the genetic material was unknown, but many were. For a patent to be granted, the invention must have demonstrable utility, if the function of the DNA sequences was unknown, it could not have utility. Despite these minor bottlenecks, Venter sits on a heap of patents which will spin gold when the time comes.

Speculation is rife about all that synthetic microorganisms could do for the benefit of mankind. Custom made bacteria and algae to produce whatever you want, creating drugs and vaccines, cleaning water and effluents, trapping carbon in cultures serving as carbon sinks, even novel foods, energy and fuels, industrial chemicals, paints and varnishes…almost anything. Venter has already mentioned a 600 million dollar deal with Exxon to create ‘synthetic ‘algae to produce biofuels; another deal for an undisclosed amount has been struck with the British petroleum giant BP. Despite this promising wish list that synthetic biology appears to offer, there are also immense ethical and security implications associated with this new technology.

The US system is gearing up to look at synthetic biology to identify ethical boundaries and minimize identified risks. President Obama has asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to examine the new technology in this context. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this review, particularly in the back drop of how genetic engineering, another contested technology was reviewed. In that case, despite there being outstanding ethical and security issues associated with recombinant DNA technology, not dissimilar to the current situation with synthetic biology, it was commercial interests that ultimately prevailed. Transgenic technology was not considered violative of fundamental ethical principles and the security concerns were countered by the argument that there was sufficient vigilance and the benefits far outweighed the risks.

How should Indian science respond to the new developments? There is good potential for first class biological research in the country, even if some of it tends to be copycat. Indian labs will undoubtedly want to connect with this new technology domain. But before engaging with the field of synthetic biology , or any of the transformative technologies on the horizon, there should be a public debate involving Parliament on the desirability of this technology and more than that, the ability of our regulatory systems to cope with its more than considerable potential risks. The track record on regulating Agbiotech has been abysmal. Our regulatory bodies lack technical competence and are riddled with conflict of interest, lack of transparency and accountability.

In spite of sustained demands from a wide variety of people, to improve the regulatory system, vested interests are succeeding in maintaining a weak and ineffective regulation that does not get in the way of product release. The more radical the breakthroughs in biology, the more they upset the equilibrium achieved through evolution and the greater the danger of damage. By inference, therefore, the greater the need for caution and perhaps for abstinence. It does not stand that just because scientists can do something, society should endorse that it be done. We do after all have a self imposed ban on sexing a foetus, on human embryonal cloning and on germline therapy (doing genetic changes to the human germ cells which will allow the changes to be passed on to the next generation).

Proceeding with radical technologies that will alter, perhaps inalienably, many facets of our existence, needs the cautious and considered endorsement of society and its stewards.
If the decision is to move forward on synthetic biology, a new and effective regulatory system that has the confidence of the public must be put in place before the first test tube is picked up or the first culture plated.


  1. Sexing of foetus is banned due to the unethical use of technology/violation of moral code. Improper use can happen with any technology. Should science have strict code of conduct as to what to do and what not to do or how/ how not to use what is done?

  2. Science has really made life easier...but it forces me to think how much damage it is causing to the environment at the same time.
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