Research notes

April 13, 2007

A generation ago, scientists invented means to intentionally "cut and paste" pre-existing fragments of DNA, allowing for the manual construction of new DNA molecules and the advent of "genetic engineering".

This technology has been applied in the service of basic biological research and applied biomedical research and has allowed a wide range of biological technologies to be developed.

The apparent net impact of this technology is overwhelmingly positive, starting with the engineering of bacteria to produce human insulin for treating diabetes. However, also from its invention, genetic engineering posed a number of important questions, only some of which have been addressed directly. These questions are more pressing today as the pace and scope of our ability to engineer biology increases with the continuing development of several new technologies that together comprise "synthetic biology".

Bus what is synthetic biology? Genetic engineering as traditionally practised bears little resemblance to other forms of engineering such as bridge-building, water supply operations, design and fabrication of electronics and so on. Unlike in these relatively mature forms of engineering, genetic engineering projects largely involve scientific research and have uncertain costs, times to completion and even probabilities of success. Thus, the underlying goal of synthetic biology is to change the process of engineering biology by making the design and construction of many-component biological systems simpler and more reliable.

Can we make biology easy to engineer? We don't know. This foundational question underlies all biological engineering research. However, we do know that we can make biology easier to engineer. The three technologies that let us do so are automated construction of DNA, standardisation of biological parts, and abstraction. Automated construction of DNA enables rapid production of genetic material from scratch. Standardisation allows individual engineers to define basic biological building blocks, such that these elements can be readily reused to make innumerable biological systems. Abstraction provides a means for managing complexity so that more powerful genetic elements can be developed without being overwhelmed by underlying biological detail.

Here are the six classes of "human practice" concerns encountered so far in synthetic biology: 

  • Biological safety
  • Biological security
  • Investment and innovation in biotechnology
  • Ownership and sharing of biological technologies
  • Community and professional practice in biological engineering
  • Biological ethics.

Each class of concerns might be considered as technology is developed for constructive purposes. But no matter how careful, thoughtful or cautionary we might be, mistakes will be made, accidents will occur, the technology will be purposefully misapplied and the potential for greatly increased inequity exists. We should work to eliminate or reduce all negative outcomes.

The pioneering researchers who invented and deployed first-generation genetic engineering technology have or will soon retire. Our opportunity is to learn from their success in developing a self-governance framework for managing issues of biological safety as they relate to genetic engineering. Our responsibility is to recognise that addressing issues in biotechnology necessarily involves many communities.

Widespread public exploration of the issues and an honest and sustained commitment to learning, sharing and dialogue deserves full support.

Drew Endy is Cabot assistant professor of biological engineering, Massachussetts Institute of Technology, US.

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