"What I cannot create, I do not understand, but: Do I understand, what I can create?"
Richard Feynman

Synthetic biology offers unknown possibilities, similar to the computer revolution or to synthetic chemistry before it. That is how the Regensburg-based company Geneart fashions DNA building blocks that will be able to assist in the synthesis of artificial life. Man could design organisms with special traits. Of course, this is not possible with today’s technology, but according to experts it is conceivable in the not too distant future. But is this justifiable from an ethical standpoint? Are we allowed to get mixed up in the work of the Creator? Does mankind dare to play god? Synthetic biology again highlights questions of scientific responsibility.

We were especially surprised to find out that there are no rules in Austria in regards to the security of synthetic biology or, as in our case, synthetic proteins. We were allowed to complete our project without any problems or legal restrictions.
That is why it was especially important to look at the security aspects of synthetic biology. On December 14, 2009, we organized an evening program, in which questions about synthetic biology in general, but also about security and justifiability in specific were to be brought up. We wanted to get people to make up their own minds – anyone can go with the flow. To make your own statement and to be able to justify it is much more difficult!
In order to conduct the discussion at a professional level, we invited two experts in the field of synthetic biology: Dr. Nediljko Budisa of the Max-Planck-Institute in Munich, the “shooting star” of synthetic biology in Germany, ad Dr. Markus Schmidt from the organization for International Dialog and Conflict Management (IDC) in Vienna. Dr. Schmidt runs the EU project “Biosafe”, which hopes to start a Europe-wide discussion about the safety of synthetic biology.
The two of them gave us a look into the lessons of “Leben vom Reißbrett” (Life from the Drawingboard). We concluded with a discussion about our questions in regards to the topic:

  • What possibilities are there in synthetic biology?

  • How can risk factors –such as the unintended release of synthetics life forms – be dealt with?

  • How can the public be brought into the discussion and provoked into forming their own opinions about it?

An almost never ending question and answer session began that offered up a lot of additional information and cleared up a lot of things. We heard , for example, that in the US, at MIT, there was a competition called iGEM – for undergraduates – to make synthetic biology accessible to young people.

That is how, for example, an Escherichia coli bacterium with the scent of banana, a synthetic botox-skin cream or a bacterium that adds different colors to human excrement based on nutrition and sickness were created. This proves that synthetic biology can already be understood and used at the undergraduate level and can turn the lab into a layman’s genetic kitchen. Even pupils can deal intensively with science and create quite useful things.

There are even some private citizens that are getting involved with synthetic biology. “Biohackers” are already working with cell cultures and Petri dishes with a DIY mindset in garages and living rooms and are quickly building new biological systems. The hobby scientists’ goal is to assemble a “biological tool box for the garage”. It is clear that the possibility of a new organism being released in to the wild poses a certain level of danger. The consequences for the endemic flora and fauna cannot be fully quantified. This discipline is just too complex and new for that. The security specialist Schmidt, however, sees in this enthused scene a “democratization of biotechnology”. It is no longer just the big companies that decide the path of research based on their hunger for patents and profit. Now pragmatic ideas stand in front of a background made of open-source ideology.

What would the results of synthetic biology be if it were to fall into the wrong hands? What about “bio-terrorism”? The following case can give one an idea: A journalist at the “Guardian” was able to order and receive a sample of genetic material from the smallpox virus. It is also possible to synthesize the genome of both polio and influenza. Companies that offer “bio-bricks” have to keep accurate records and compare their databanks. Otherwise criminals could compile all the necessary genetic elements of a dangerous virus that they would only need to assemble…

Of course, there are also promising proposals of how to assure security in the handling of synthetically altered material. In order to stop the unintended release of synthetic organism, targeted security mechanisms could be included that would make life outside of a lab impossible for the altered bacteria. So-called minimal organisms that can barely fuel their own metabolism and require all their nutrients in a substrate would not be able to live in the wild. Their environment would be exclusive to the lab or the fermenter.

Biological Firewalls: the genetic make-up of naturally occurring life that is written into the double helix of it’s DNA, is made up of continually repeating sequences of deoxyribose, a base (A for Adenine, G for Guanine, C for Cytosine and T for Thymine) and phosphor. “If the Deoxyribose in the DNA is exchanged for a hexose for example, a new genetic system is produced, in this case an “HNA”. No natural organism could read this HNA. It would be as good as invisible – a biological firewall. Such an organism runs with a new parallel operating system” according to experts.

There are important ethical questions and security concerns to be dealt with in connection with all the hopes of synthetic biology. What is especially clear in the public portrayal of synthetic biology is the relatively open culture of discussion. Almost instantaneously, the discussion is being obediently steered in the desired direction of industry and science leaders toward technological possibilities. That is to avoid a PR disaster, like was the case with genetically modified plants and is partially the case today with nanotechnology. “Scientists used to have waves of arrogance. Today, researchers and industry leaders ad more careful. After all, the future of the bio-economy is at stake here,” says Schmidt.

We filmed the evening’s discussion. The presentation made by Dr. Schmidt and the resulting discussion with Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Budisa can be found at the following link.

Quotes from
"Leben 2.0, Biologie aus dem Baukasten", www.zukunftswissen.apa.at, Mario Wasserfaller, 12.02.2010