Imagine a world where cancer-affected cells can be regrown without risk of recurrence, a world where legs lost in war can be recreated or grown back.
Synthetic biology, the process of creating organic material artificially, has near infinite possibilities and expands the limits of what humans can produce. It has already been used to help make vaccines, create artificial rubber, and manufacture textile fibers that once came from animals or plants. Synthetic biology will soon be able to produce vast quantities of biofuel and detect harmful bacteria. However, synthetic biology also presents serious concerns: it could create catastrophic disasters from only minor genetic errors, it presents issues which may be too ethically challenging for our current moral development as a species, and it could very easily be used to produce dangerous weapons.
As demonstrated by genetic disorders like Down Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis, even the smallest errors in genetic code have dramatic and possibly dangerous effects. Creating life without being fully aware of the consequences can easily result in something that cannot be controlled and might be harmful. For example, someone could unintentionally create a disease that might harm its inventor or others. It sounds like a science fiction movie, but in reality anyone is currently able to purchase synthetic biology “kits” on the internet for a few hundred dollars without providing any proof of qualification. These kits in their current state can modify and produce bacteria, and the kits are quickly becoming more sophisticated. Clearly, there should be restrictions placed on synthetic biology to prevent the average person from tinkering with life. At a minimum, a permit should be required to purchase or use genetic technology, and a user’s activities should be recorded and subject to ready inspection.
Traditional human activities such as hunting and controlled breeding already tamper with the flow of natural evolution, but synthetic biology could easily cause more drastic impacts. Nature currently evolves naturally, by randomized genetic variation; augmenting oneself or another species with synthetic biology could break or alter the evolutionary chain. If the food chain or a certain species is modified, that one organism may battle another and break or alter the ecosystem by eliminating a certain tier. For example, if you were to modify a bug’s eating habits, the quantity of plants in that ecosystem may fall out of balance and thus key producers may be lost. Nature should not be tampered with beyond the point where you understand the consequences, so synthetic biology should be closely monitored by a national authority that has the power to prevent unregulated activities.
With the introduction of powerful atomic weapons, tensions throughout the world increased dramatically. Many fear the apocalypse that could come in the form of an explosion, but what if the next major threat to humanity came in the form of biological weapons? Widespread diseases (like the Black Plague) that have occurred naturally have already been major blows to mankind. If a biological disease were to be purposefully created or enhanced, it could easily kill millions. In fact, it could be more powerful than nuclear weapons, if executed in a way that strikes fast and is difficult to cure. Because of this, major world organizations such as the UN should keep a watch on significant synthetic biology that is at least as effective as their control over nuclear weapons.
Synthetic biology is undoubtedly very useful and can be utilized to safely and effectively surpass mankind’s capacity to alter life itself. However, it is unbelievably risky and could have severe consequences. Synthetic biology also tampers with nature and could disturb the flow of evolution. Finally, it could be used to create powerful biological weapons. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, and before we expand what we know we should ensure we’re wise enough to understand it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.