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Thomas H. Murray: Society Must Weigh “Massive” Potential Benefits Against Risks of Synthetic Life

“Synthetic biology”—the process of fundamentally altering life or creating new life forms—offers “mind-boggling” possible benefits to humanity, but they must be weighed against bioterrorism and others risks that remain largely unknown and difficult to define, bioethicist Thomas H. Murray said at AAAS.

“If I didn’t think the potential benefits… were massive, there would be no point in having this conversation,” said Murray, president and chief executive officer of the Hastings Center. “We should just not do it.”

But given the potential upside—such as microbes to churn out pharmaceuticals or to quickly gobble up oil spills—society must eventually grapple with the cost-benefit equation.

“The first [risk] you worry about is biosecurity, the possibility that synthetic biology will be used to build new kinds of pathogens that could be used in biowarfare or bioterrorism,” Murray said. And while manufacturing pathogens in the laboratory is becoming easier—already scientists have reconstructed the polio and 1918 pandemic influenza viruses—turning those bugs into weapons remains a huge technological challenge. That means terrorist groups are unlikely to effectively deploy pathogens as tools of terror anytime soon.


Thomas H. Murray | Photo by Brian Vastag for AAAS

A second concern is ensuring biosafety while preventing “bioerrorism,” such as the inadvertent transfer of genes from synthetic organisms to natural ones. Murray pointed out that frameworks already exist to deal in part with these concerns. In the United States, government regulations cover many aspects of genetic engineering, particularly gene therapy for humans, while scientists self-regulate other aspects of the trade, as laid out in principles put forth at the seminal 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA.


While some synthetic biology technologies remain distant, others are already speeding ahead. A major advance arrived in May, when the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in Science the creation of “the first self-replicating synthetic” bacterium. The team had captured the genetic code of one bacterium, modified it slightly, fed that code into a DNA synthesizer, and implanted the resulting genome into a closely related bacterium. Murray said the researchers probably didn’t actually create life. “[Venter’s] argument is they have created a synthetic cell,” he said. “Another view is that the cell adopted the new genome. The genome is not enough. You need the cell too.”

Regardless, the advance provided a huge boost of public attention to the nascent field.

Still, it’s too soon to say how the United States, and the larger world, will react to synthetic biology, as very little public awareness of the term exists, Murray said. In fact, the definition of the term remains fuzzy, although Murray did place the technologies comprising “synthetic biology” into four categories:

  • Advanced genetic engineering. Engineering bacteria to produce a precursor of artemisinin, a front-line malaria drug, epitomizes this category. This technology exists already, as the artemisinin project has moved out of the lab and into the factories of Sanofi-aventis, which is attempting to scale-up production. Artemisinin had previously been made only from tree bark.
  • DNA-based device construction. The BioBricks project applies the principles of electronics engineering to biology, aiming to one day build functional nano devices de novo from genes and proteins. “I call it the Lego-ization of biology,” Murray said. “They’re a long way from achieving this vision.”
  • Creating a minimal cell. Venter’s achievement of synthesizing a complete, functional genome for Mycoplasma mycoides is the leading indicator that this category will draw a lot of attention in the near future.

Creating a protocell. “The goal here is to create a new form of life,” Murray said. “A genuinely new living entity, not based on the biology we’ve known thus far.” This goal remains distant, but may lead to radical advances such as silicon-based life.

As long as synthetic biology is restricted to the realm of microbes, Murray, who served on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission during the administration of President Bill Clinton, anticipates no objections from religious leaders. “[A]ny reasonably sophisticated ethical framework can easily deal with a synthetic genome,” Murray said. “It just doesn’t follow that life loses its specialness just because we can write a genome on a computer.”

But as biological technologies move beyond microbial engineering toward creating new forms of life, or toward radically manipulating humans, society will have to confront not only the cost-benefit equation, but also deeper issues of identity, Murray said. In the United States, the most intractable ethical debates—such as the one regarding abortion—revolve around questions of identity. Believing in life at conception, for instance, can be a core conviction that helps define an individual’s identity. It’s too early to say if ethical debates surrounding synthetic biology will also cleave along such deep lines, but they hold that potential. Forging compromise will be difficult or impossible in that case, said Murray.

Ultimately, the United States and the larger global community will have to take a stance towards synthetic biology. One way of conceiving of this is as a choice between applying a precautionary principle or a “proactionary principle” to synthetic biology. The difference in U.S. and European regulation of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) as food illustrates the difference. The U.S. is proactionary, asking for no special testing of GMO foods, while Europe has taken a precautionary stance, requiring extra safety testing for such products.

Murray said that the U.S. generally leans toward the proactionary principle for new technologies. That history, though, is no guarantee that synthetic biology will smoothly speed ahead.

“Is pushing the frontiers of knowledge part of our identity?” Murray asked. “If so, then our response will lean toward the proactionary.”

Murray presented the talk on 28 October at the 3rd Annual AAAS-Hitachi Lecture on Science & Society, organized by Science & Policy Programs at AAAS. Hitachi is a global company doing business in various fields from social infrastructure to home appliances, materials, logistics, and services. The Hastings Center’s work on the ethics of synthetic biology is funded by a $500,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which made similar grants to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the J. Craig Venter Institute.


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