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See Inside June 2006

How to Kill Synthetic Biology

PROGRAMMED CELLS



COURTESY OF RON WEISS Princeton University
Thirty-three years after the invention of gene-splicing, the reality of biotechnology is still far short of what many once dreamed it would be, partly because the tools for manipulating genes have been crude. That is about to change. As nine scientists explain in "Engineering Life," beginning on page 44, new "bio fab" approaches to assembling complete genetic circuits promise to advance biotechnology in much the same way that the invention of integrated circuits transfigured electronics. They should enable workers to reengineer cells more ambitiously, to create organisms programmed at the genetic level to behave as desired. Colossal payoffs could accrue to medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, energy production and other fields. It is the birth of synthetic biology.

But like every newborn, synthetic biology is still intensely vulnerable. There are many ways to kill this young science; here are just two:

Underestimate safety concerns. Around the globe, people continue to worry that unnatural organisms containing recombinant DNA will become environmental headaches, if not pathogenic blights. For them, the news that scientists could soon genetically tinker more easily and more extensively is anything but good.

Fortunately, the research community is already undertaking activities, including the Synthetic Biology 2.0 meeting in May and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded study to be completed this summer, aimed at ensuring safety and instilling confidence. Following through on those recommendations and continuing the discussion will be imperative. But the burden of making synthetic biology secure does not fall just on the scientists; policymakers and opinion leaders need to endorse those plans, too, for the public to believe in the governance.

Patent indiscriminately. As the "Engineering Life" authors explain, underpinning the synthetic biology endeavor is a willingness for researchers to share their new genetic "devices" through a communal repository, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Investigators working on new systems could then simply look up the designs of any available needed components rather than reinventing everything from scratch.

That cooperative spirit is regrettably out of sync with biotechnology's modus operandi these days. As Gary Stix reviewed in "Owning the Stuff of Life," in the February issue, companies and universities have been on a spree of patenting not only whole genes but also genetic fragments of unknown utility. Some of those DNA patents seem overly broad or otherwise fail to meet the traditional standards for awarding intellectual property, and critics fret that their abusive exercise could hamper biomedical research. Stix concluded that few problems had emerged so far but that conflicts could intensify as more discoveries were put to work. To be clear: the problem is not patents as such but bad patents. Overly restrictive licensing and smotheringly broad patent interpretations could make a shambles of synthetic biology.

Half a century ago if recklessness, greed and unreasonable fear had somehow handicapped the development of integrated circuits, then the computing and communications revolutions would have been snuffed out. Now is an equally pivotal moment for the future of biotechnology.

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