On the threat of synthetic biology

I’m on record as suggesting that synthetic biology does not constitute much in the way of a biothreat (Nature Biotechnology, December, 2009, pp. 1071-1073). However, this does not stop many of the practitioners of this ‘discipline’ from declaring that the sky is falling. This sort of raises the question as to what synthetic biology actually is, and how it differs in some significant way from what has come before. It is hard to get a consensus definition of what the term is or what the field constitutes, and this is likely because ’synthetic biology’ is more buzzword than meaningful term. What we now call ’synthetic biology’ used to be called biotechnology: the purposeful alteration of biological sequences and organisms for desired functions. All that has really occurred is that DNA synthesis technology has matured to the point where this can be done on a larger scale than previously.

But the larger scale is sort of not the point; the impact of genetic changes is. And in this regard, biotechnology is as dangerous as it ever was. Which is to say: very, very dangerous. Any molecular biologist who turns their attention to ‘red teaming,’ trying to figure out what bad people would do if they had the same skill set as the molecular biologist, quickly comes to the conclusion that many of us should already be dead (or, more to the point, the economy should be in even greater tatters than it is now). It’s just too easy.

Which raises the question: why aren’t we dead? The answer is not: we hadn’t yet invented synthetic biology. Very bad things can be done with very simple alterations, or even (perhaps especially) with no alterations at all. While the press and the scientific community decried the total synthesis of poliovirus as some sort of Hellish milestone, this was long preceded by Pim Stemmer showing how shuffling HIV-1 could generate some unsettling viral phenotypes (and somewhere in our own archives are theoretical suggestions as to what might be done with pox viruses). Heck, if anything, the focus on synthetic biology is a welcome distraction, in that perhaps our adversaries will think that they need to fill their caves and lairs with Venter-style DNA synthesis combines in order to do us any damage. That would be a relief.

What’s unfortunate is that the hysteria over synthetic biology seems to be driving policy and funding. And this in turn suggests an unsettling feedback loop between the experts in the non-field, and the sources of funding for the non-field. Or so it appears

- originally posted on Thursday, July 1st, 2010