Warning over dangers posed by creation of 'artificial life'

Share this article

AN EMERGING field of science which is being used to create artificial life is at risk of damaging the ecosystem and being abused by terrorists, according to a new report.

Scientists have high hopes for a new technique called synthetic biology, which involves engineering organisms so they work in new ways that do not currently exist in nature.

It has been claimed that the process could create new fuels to replace petrol and new drugs to combat disease.

In the United States, scientists have controversially used the technique to create an entirely new type of life. However, a report by scientists at the University of Nottingham highlights ethical and social concerns over the use of synthetic biology and recommends new controls and regulations need to be put in place.

One area of concern is "bioterrorism", where synthetic biology could be used to produce new organisms designed to be hostile to humans.

Andrew Balmer and Professor Paul Martin, the report's authors, also suggest a threat from "garage biology", with people experimenting at home.

And they emphasise that there is no policy on the impact of synthetic biology on international bioweapons conventions.

The report, "Synthetic Biology: Social and Ethical Challenges", also highlights concerns about the accidental release of synthetic organisms into the environment.

The authors, from the Institute for Science and Society at the University if Nottingham, write: "By their very nature, such biological machines could evolve, proliferate and produce unexpected interactions that might alter the ecosystem."

They highlight anxieties over the idea of creating artificial life, with the process of synthetic biology provoking fears about scientists "playing God".

Craig Venter, a controversial DNA researcher, was last year credited with creating an artificial life form in the laboratory.

The report recommends that robust controls are put in place before the science develops, with a review of existing regulations and the development of new measures.

But Edinburgh University's Dr Alistair Elfick, who works in the field of synthetic biology, said the dangers associated with the field were at risk of being over-hyped.

He said: "We need to be aware of these things. We don't need to be overly worried.

"We are already working in an environment that's very heavily regulated, necessarily, so I don't think there's a need to change much.

"In Europe, we already have a strict set of regulations as to what we can do and how we can do it."

And, downplaying the risk of terrorist action, he added: "If you wanted to do bioterrorism, you wouldn't go to the hassle of creating a new organism.

"There are plenty of ways of doing it already."

Dr Elfick warned that concerns about the accidental release of organisms into the environment should not be "over-egged".

He said: "Our laboratory bacteria are real softies. They wouldn't stand a chance against wild strains of bacteria."

Describing the potential applications of synthetic biology as "vast", he added:

"You make the cell do what you want. You can make it sense contamination, gobble up oil spills, produce drugs, produce fuel."

Dr Elfick's team has used synthetic biology to modify bacteria to sense the presence of arsenic in water, turning the sample red if the poison is present, which he said could be used to help test for contaminated drinking water.

He added that synthetic biology could have huge potential for the creation of biofuels.

Currently, yeast can only turn simple sugars in a crop such as corn into the fuel ethanol, meaning about 80 per cent of the plant is wasted. But if the yeast can be modified to also digest complex sugars he thinks it would mean almost the entire corn crop could be turned into fuel.

The report was commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences.

What is synthetic biology?

The creation of artificial biological systems and organisms. This could involve redesigning existing cell chromosomes, or creating a whole new artificial life system.

Has artificial life been created by scientists?

Craig Venter, a controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, announced last year he had created a synthetic chromosome in the laboratory, christened mycoplasma laboratorium.

The next step will be to insert this into a living bacterial cell. It is expected to take control of the cell, in effect becoming a new life form.

What is the potential for synthetic biology?

The scope is believed to be huge. There are claims that bacteria could be created that lead to alternative fuels, mop up greenhouse gases to help tackle climate change, clean up oil spills and produce plastics.

What are the concerns?

Opponents to synthetic biology say that artificial microbes may have dangerous consequences, such as escaping into the environment or being used to manufacture bioweapons.

Other concerns are that commercial monopolies could be created in areas such as the development of fuels.

Where in the UK is research being carried out into synthetic biology?

Currently, the US is leading the way, but there is research taking place at Edinburgh University, King's College London, Imperial College London and Oxford University.