"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Playing God–Synthetic Biology

Adam Rutherford wrote about synthetic biology in the Guardian (7.27) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/27/synthetic-biology-playing-god-vital-future about scientific breakthroughs in genetic modification (GM) and the particularly strident criticisms that have come from many quarters concerning this innovative and far-reaching technology.  For years critics and lay people alike have resisted any kind of modification in plant or animal DNA, expressing fears that once the ‘real’ thing disappeared and was replaced by a human-tinkered product, the planet would be doomed. 

Dracula corn, Mephistopheles wheat, and poor Dolly the Sheep would reproduce and spread quickly and completely; and when some glitch in their recombination inevitably showed up, we would have no way to repopulate the land with good, old-fashioned, American plants and animals.  This, of course, with no regard to the benefits realized from GM  such as the rapid production of insulin, insect resistant wheat, fast-growing rice, and a whole host of other improved plants, animals, and medicines.

Environmentalists, religious figures and sections of the media regularly use the phrase as a handy stick with which to beat those in the field. Scientists, they claim, are foolishly meddling in matters that should be left to the gods or nature.

That accusation has been made in attacks against many of the major scientific advances of the modern era, including Watson and Crick's description of the structure of DNA in 1953; the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978; the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997 and the sequencing of the human genome in 2001. In all these scenarios, it's not clear exactly what "playing God" actually means.

It is not hard to imagine the fear and outrage caused by synthetic biology.  Not only are scientists tampering with ‘the real thing’, they are creating a totally artificial ‘thing’, letting loose into the environment even more distorted, deformed, and ghoulish varieties of things we consume.

If there were those who said we were playing God when it came to recombining DNA, substituting a few fragments of one organism for those in the nucleus of e-coli, there are legions more who are convinced that the human race has finally, once-and-for-all, crossed the heretical line dividing God’s prerogatives and ours.  At the same time, they ignore the benefits:

Researchers in California, for example, have created synthetic circuits for yeast cells that produce a chemical called artemisinin, a key anti-malarial drug. This will be cheaper than getting it from the plant Artemisia annua, the current production method.

Nasa is investigating ways to create bacteria that counter the effects of radiation sickness in astronauts. Meanwhile, a US–Swiss group has engineered a genetic circuit designed to detect and destroy cancer cells without inflicting the unintended damage caused by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Synthetic biology is but the latest in a series of human attempts to ‘play God’:

Yet there is almost no aspect of human behaviour that isn't some form of manipulation of the environment for our own purposes. Farming, which we've been doing for more than 10,000 years, is quite the opposite of natural. Breeding, known scientifically as "artificial selection", is the process of mixing genes by design to engineer cheap and plentiful food.

Detractors use the phrase "playing God" to provoke emotive opposition without defining what it is about synthetic biology that is qualitatively different to the previous advances that they enjoy and benefit from every day. Should we go back to the time before humans started playing God through their development of sanitation, vaccines and measures to counter widespread child mortality?

This is a very simple and elegant argument in favor of scientific achievement and progress.  Human beings, because of our evolved state of intelligence, curiosity, enterprise, and self-preservation, have always looked for ways to change the environment in which we have lived and always will.  As importantly, there has never been a scientific discovery which offered significant benefits to humanity that has been rejected and buried for moral, ethical, or religious reasons.  Scientific discovery has a life of its own, particularly in a country like America where we value progress and human betterment overall.  Heresy and apostasy are things of the past, and burning people at the stake for antisocial behavior and novel ideas is finished; but the inheritors of 17th Century New England are still alive and well and still want to burn – figuratively, of course – those who want to ‘play God’.  Stem cell research is currently in their cross-hairs; and once they figure out what geneticists are doing, they will add their fundamentalist voices to the liberal ‘progressive’ environmentalists on the Coasts.

Our social and philosophical conservatism is everywhere.  Virtual reality is still seen only within the context of adolescent computer games; but when these same conservative fundamentalists get wind of the eventual brain-computer link which will allow us to live exclusively in a computer-mediated virtual world where any combination of fantasy, reality, and history becomes the coin of the realm, the opposition will be incendiary.

All to no avail, of course, because scientific discoveries are both the result of consumer demand and shapers of it.  Scientists will develop virtuality because we want it; and each new technological advance will stimulate more demand.  The same with synthetic biology.  Eventually we will be able to create totally synthetic human beings modeled and crafted according to our own very human vision.  Will they still be human?  Of course.  The transformation will be progressive and incremental; and at each stage of development, there will be a brief firefight between religion and practicality.  Practicality – satisfying consumer demand – will always win.

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