Maximizing the benefits of synthetic biology
Monday, September 13th, 2010
Scientists and policy experts are in Philadelphia on Monday, Sept. 13 to ponder the ethics around synthetic biology – including the creation of microscopic artificial life.
Someday synthetic biology could make man-made germs, bacteria or viruses work for our benefit.
University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan says scientists dream of engineering new life forms to eat pollution or maybe secret oils that could be used as fuel.
Caplan: They might even be able to get into our bodies and eat cholesterol out of our arteries, or track down things like MRSA, infectious bacteria that we don't have good drugs for – maybe they could be programmed to kill them. So making our own artificial microbes is a very, very exciting area.
Exciting and concerning.
Critics say it's wrong to "play God" and engineer life. Others worry that the microbes will become invasive and cause ecological havoc.
Caplan will testify at the Philadelphia meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Eventually, the group will make recommendations on policies and ethical boundaries for the field of synthetic biology.
Caplan says similar to cattle in the old West, artificial microbes should be branded so they can be tracked back to their manufacturer.
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman is chair of the bioethics commission convened by President Obama.
Gutman: We know some of its [synthetic biology's] potential but most of its potential is down the road, so therefore we can prepare ourselves. That's what the commission wants to do, make recommendations that will maximize benefits and mitigate risks.
The bioethics meeting is open to the public.