Team:SCUT/HP/Magazine/iGEM Thinking


A Brief Talk on Safety and Ethics of Synthetic Biology

For the numerous movie fans, scientists use high-tech methods to create creatures and even clone humans, as well as terrorists manufacture bio-weapons to spread, are not fresh stories. However, artificial life forms have become true in reality. In 2010, according to the genome sequence information, Craig Venter , an American scientist , designed , synthesized and assembled Mycoplasma mycoides genome , and then he transplanted the genome into a mycoide cell of a goat. Eventually he obtained a fully artificially synthesized microorganism called Synthia ,in other words he created the first artificial unicellular organism of the whole world. Barack Obama, the president of the USA , instructed President's Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to assess potential benefits and risks of synthetic biology on medical ,environment and biological defence . Why does the USA government react so intensely on this problem? And what is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology ,which was originally put forward in 1911 on some famous science journals, for example, Science and The Lancet [1], was unable to be defined uniformly because its wide range of related fields. But one thing is for sure, that the synthetic biology is a subject that uses physical and chemical methods, follow biological thoughts and utilize engineering means to solve energy, material, health and environment problems by artificially design and build unnatural biological systems. From the view of genetics, synthetic biology is a series of combinations of genetic methods ,including both top-to-bottom methods and bottom-to-top methods. An important concept of synthetic biology is using modular elements in engineering. As we can see in the picture 1 ,standard elements assemble a device ,devices assemble a system ,like that bricks assemble an architecture.

(Pic 1. The Diagrammatic Sketch of Standardization of biobricks)

Fascinatingly fast developments in genomics, material science and computer science promote considerable progress in synthetic biology. Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering department in UCB, used genes from bacteria, yeast and plant (Artemisia Annua) to conduct assembly ofmultiple genes and metabolic pathways, as well as precise regulations on multiple genes. The strains reconstructed have much higher synthesis capacity of Artemisinic acid, which is excepted to lower the cost of antimalarial drugs. In 2002, Wimmer, an expert of virology in NYU, announced that he and his research group had bought some short DNA fragments from a biotech corporation, and chemically synthesized some polioviruses, which have the same infection vitality as natural viruses. In 2010, Yoshihiro Kawaowa's group from University of Wisconsin-Madison cooperated with Ron Fouchier's group from medical center of Erasmus University. They transformed H5N1 avian influenza virus, so that it had a new pathogenicity that can spread among mammals(e.g. Ferrets) . In addition, in 1953, geneticist James Watson, together with physicist Francis Crick , unveiled the double-helix structure of DNA, creating the possibility for human to reconstruct life. In 1980, the first genetically modified mouse was born. In 1996,the first cloned sheep Dolly was born. And in 2010, American scientist Craig Venter's research group created the first artificial cell in history. From then on, synthetic biology have declared a war to the nature.

In the face of such a series of achievements in the field of synthetic biology, there are two of the most acute questions. The first one is the biological safety, while the second one is bioethics. As synthetic biology improved, we’ll worry about that whether it will be used in manufacturing the biological weapons by terrorists, as well as whether it will lead to serious catastrophic events as a result of some operation errors taken by the scientists. Furthermore, whether the artificial "life" is same as the nature "life", having the same social attributes. After creating artificial life, whether the human beings will treat life, including human life, unscrupulously. In the process of creating and constructing a new life, the nature, which is no longer domesticated gently, and is no longer simply distorted or manipulated as well, instead, is thoroughly designed or rebuild to form "the second nature" that is different from our nature. Consequently, the synthetic biology replaces autonomous evolution with directed evolution, which not only controls the dynamic mechanism of evolution, but also distorts the fundamental aim of it.

In western academia, in order to denounce the unnatural relationship between the human and the nature, scholars use the term "playing god" frequently. However, do biological scientists have privileges "playing god"? Jim Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering from Boston University, said, "this achievement of synthetic biology ruined our basic beliefs about life attribute, which were of great importance in the way of how we are looking at ourselves, human beings, as well as the place of us in the universe. The development of synthetic biology has also been questioned and challenged by the religions. Pope Benedict XVI considered that the scientists changed the will of god on the rules of life. In a speech in 2006, he explained, "Not being the god, but replacing the position of god, which was a crazy and arrogant behavior, full of dangerous adventure".

Despite so many objections, science and technology will never stagnate because of them. The research of ethical debate and security risk in synthetic biology is not aiming to prevent the development of science and technology. In fact, the healthy development of science and technology is benefited from these debate and discussion of ethical problems. For instance, as a result of these debates and arguments, scientists could finally set down the strict standards of operation for transgenic technology experiment, and strict regulations on the censorship and access rules of genetically modified food, as well as relevant regulations of assisted reproduction. It is a universal truth that the development and application of every newly emerging science and technology do have potential risks on changing nature and harming mankind. Synthetic biology, being strengthened the supervision, will not become the opened "Pandora's box", but benefit the world instead.

iGEM(International genetically Engineering Machine Competition)is the top competition in the field of synthetic biology. It exerted impact on encouraging teenagers’creativity and improving public awareness about synthetic biology. Many teams in China designed their original projects and participated in this competition. They had to passed the safety check by IiGEM HQ. Then they had to be taught to experiment properly in order to avoid environmental pollution and biological pollution produced during experiments. As we can see, we,iGEMers, really paid great attention to the safety and ethics of synthetic biology.

Reference: [1]赵学明,王庆昭. 合成生物学:学科基础、研究进展与前景展望[ J ]. 前沿科学, 2007, ( 3 ) : 56 -66. [2] Gilbert D, Jaramillo A, Krasnogor N, de Lorenzo V. Synthetic biology gains momentum in Europe. Syst Synth Biol. 2010 Sep;4(3):145-7. [3] Paddon CJ1, Westfall PJ, Pitera DJ. High-level semi-synthetic production of the potent antimalarial artemisinin. Nature 2013 Apr 25;496(7446):528-32. [4]Imai M1, Watanabe T, Hatta M.Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets. Nature. 2012 May 2;486(7403):420-8. 此外此文章仍引用了下面4篇文献,若想深入了解合成生物学与生物安全、伦理,也可仔细阅读下面文献。 [5]刘晓,熊燕,王方,赵国屏;合成生物学伦理、法律与社会问题探讨;生命科学,2011,23(9),826-837. [6]钱万强,墨宏山,闫金定,张敏; 合成生物学安全伦理研究现状;中国基础科学,1009-2312(2013)04-0013-04. [7]程晨,徐飞;合成生物学:工程伦理的实践悖论;自然辩证法研究;1000-8934(2012)08-0038-05. [8]殷正坤。为制造生命辩护——有关合成生物学伦理争论。中国医学伦理学,2009,22(1):3-5.