Advances in engineering artificial biological or chemical systems are raising security fears that the technology could fall into the wrong hands. But in the July 2005 issue of Nature Reviews Genetics, Steven Benner and Michael Sismour argue that past events show that synthetic biology may help to manage even greater biological threats from nature, so banning this technology is likely to cause more harm than good.
Synthetic biology uses DNA or protein technology to manufacture components and systems that do not exist, but can mimic aspects crucial to every living being, like genetics and evolution. These artificial genetic systems not only can help to construct simple cellular life with desirable synthetic properties, but they have also produced diagnostic tools for HIV and hepatitis viruses, and devices that can oscillate, creep, and even play tic-tac-toe.
Hacking into the knowledge to come from synthetic biology to create a harmful organism, like a more infectious Ebola virus, for instance, may create a danger, say the authors. But this is nothing compared to the threats that natural biology creates, and history has shown that synthetic biology is crucial to managing such biothreats. In 1975, the City of Cambridge banned recombinant DNA research, fearing that it might allow researchers to synthesize dangerous new organisms. But not long afterwards, AIDS began to emerge. If more cities and countries had banned this synthetic biology, it would have delayed discovering the identity of HIV as its causative virus, not to mention treatments, by years, at the cost of countless lives.
Steven A. Benner and A. Michael Sismour (University of Florida, Gainesville, USA)
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(C) Nature Reviews Genetics press release.
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