Synthetic biology is an extreme form of genetic engineering, an emerging technology that is developing rapidly yet is largely unregulated. With synthetic biology, instead of swapping genes from one species to another (as in “conventional” genetic engineering), scientists can now write and re-write novel genetic code on a computer, "printing" it out and then inserting it into organisms, or even trying to create life from scratch, creating new organisms that have never existed before in nature.
While synthetic biology holds many promises, it also creates many new risks. The ways in which synthetic organisms will interact with the natural environment are unknown, unpredictable and potentially devastating and permanent. While other types of pollution can be cleaned up and do not breed, synthetic biological creations are designed to self-replicate and, once released into the environment, they will be impossible to recall. A synthetic organism designed for a specific task, such as eating up oil from oil spills in the ocean, could swap genes with naturally occurring organisms and outcompete them, potentially disrupting entire ecosystems as a new class of invasive species
Unfortunately, this field is largely unregulated in the U.S. and internationally. Friends of the Earth has been working to promote the responsible oversight of synthetic biology, including advocacy at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity for a moratorium on the environmental release and commercial use of synthetic biology until proper regulations and safety mechanism are in place to ensure the field’s safe and responsible development.
To learn more about synthetic biology, its promises, and its risks check out Dan Rather Reports tonight at 8:00pm and 11pm EDT on AXS TV. For a quick intro to the program, check out the promo video above.