Are We Really Ready for Synthetic Biology? MAG

May 4, 2017
By AVM1427 BRONZE, Cary, North Carolina
AVM1427 BRONZE, Cary, North Carolina
4 articles 0 photos 3 comments

Imagine a world where cancer-affected cells can be regrown without risk of recurrence, a world where a limb 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 our bodies can do naturally. 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: minor genetic errors could create catastrophic disasters, 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 small errors in genetic code can have dramatic and 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 themselves or others. It sounds like a science-fiction movie, but in reality, anyone can buy a synthetic biology kit 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 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 monitored.

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 alter or break the evolutionary chain. If a certain species is modified, that organism may suddenly be competing with another species, disrupting the ecosystem. For example, if you were to modify a bug’s eating habits, the plants in that ecosystem may fall out of balance and, in turn, destroy key producers. Nature should not be tampered with beyond the point where we understand the consequences, so synthetic biology should be closely monitored by an authority that has the power to prevent unregulated activities.
With the advent of powerful nuclear weapons, tensions around the world have increased dramatically. Many fear the apocalypse that would result from nuclear war, but what if the next major threat to humanity came in the form of biological warfare? Throughout history, widespread diseases (like the Black Plague) have dealt major blows to mankind. If a biological disease was intentionally created or enhanced, it could easily kill millions of people. In fact, bio-weapons 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 United Nations must establish a governance over synthetic biology that is at least as effective as their control over nuclear weapons.

Synthetic biology is undoubtedly useful and can be utilized to safely and effectively surpass mankind’s capacity to alter life itself. However, tampering with nature is unbelievably risky and could have severe consequences, such disruptions in evolution and the creation of powerful biological weapons. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, and before we expand what we know, we should ensure that we are wise enough to understand it. 

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