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16/04/2014

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A new ethical challenge?

Robin Gill resists theological hyperbole

The report issued by the Royal Academy of Engineering1 devotes a substantial chapter to the ethical and social implications of synthetic biology.  At stake are not just the usual questions about safety and intellectual property, but also more challenging ones about national security and the propriety of creating novel forms of life.

The immediate applications of synthetic biology do not appear to be particularly threatening.  The development of new drugs, for example, seems at first sight to be relatively unchallenging. An anti-malarial drug (artemisinin) has already been developed using synthetic biology and is likely to go into full production with huge potential for better health in many developing countries. In future, personalised drugs produced by synthetic biology may have less harmful side effects and be able to respond more ‘intelligently’ to the body’s defence mechanisms.

Biosecurity

But what if synthetic biology is used instead to produce harmful agents that can be used by terrorists? Garage technology in California already makes it possible for individuals (benevolent or malevolent) to experiment in this area without any formal control.

The Academy’s report alarmingly states: ‘In the US [biosecurity] is the most heavily debated social risk associated with synthetic biology... Biosecurity concerns were triggered by the synthesis of several pathogenic viruses, including the 1918 influenza virus and an infectious polio virus that was synthesised using only published DNA sequenced information and mail-ordered raw materials.’ Three years ago a Guardian journalist in this country showed that he could order the DNA sequences for the smallpox virus and have them delivered to his home.

It is clear that great vigilance is needed. Sadly technology, as the scientist/theologian Ian Barbour often reminded us, is in itself neither good nor bad – it is power that can be used or misused. Similarly, computers can be used for better communication between friends and families or they can be misused to download child pornography or to facilitate the perpetrators of 9/11 and 7/7. That is not a reason for abandoning computers, or now synthetic biology, but it is a reason for vigilance and, where possible, careful governance.

Ethical responsibility

Another imminent use of synthetic biology is the production of new biomaterials. For example, people in the South Pacific have long used the silk of the orb spider web to make fishing nets and traps because it is both strong and light. Synthetic versions of this silk may soon be in full production and beneficial in many different areas. Aeroplanes, for example, would be more fuel efficient and less damaging to the environment if they were lighter while remaining strong.

Yet producing synthetic forms of nature and, in turn, novel forms of life not actually found in nature raises unnerving questions about life itself. The first synthetic organism (a polio virus) was produced in 2002 by Cello and co-workers at State University of New York. The Academy’s report notes qualms of some about such a development: ‘The creation of synthetic living organisms according to rational and reductionist engineering principles is likely to invoke worries about scientists “playing God”, and some may object to synthetic biology at the outset for this reason.’

Forty years ago, in the early days of IVF, the theologian and ethicist Paul Ramsey accused scientists of ‘playing God’, and quite a number of theologians have made the same accusation against biotechnologists today. Yet most of modern medicine and all surgery could be banned if this accusation were taken too literally. Perhaps it is more appropriate to argue for ethical responsibility and to resist such theological hyperbole.

Synthetic biology does bring ethical challenges that do need to be addressed carefully and responsibly. It is encouraging that the Royal Academy is developing this discussion in Britain.

1Synthetic Biology: Scope, Applications and Implications See http://www.raeng.org.uk/

By permission of the Church Times, in which a longer version of this article appears

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Canon Robin Gill
Canon Robin Gill is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent
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