In a recent conversation about the safety and ethics of synthetic biology in the wake of the announcement of the synthetic genome, many of the professors I was chatting with commented on how they hoped new synthetic biology technology would lead to bacteria that could eat the oil spilling into the gulf of mexico even as I type this right now. Of course, the “technology” for oil eating bacteria already exists and have already been used for clean up in previous oil spills–many naturally occurring species of bacteria can already break down the hydrocarbons in crude oil. The natural oil eaters end up competing with each other, however, leading to decreased efficiency in an already slow clean-up process (these are bacteria after all, not oil-phiranas). Genetic engineering and directed evolution technology has led to the design of improved strains of oil eating bacteria that can proceed more quickly and more stably than the natural strains, and has already been patented–in 1971.
Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an Indian-born scientist working at GE in the 1960’s and 1970’s, developed the multi-plasmid hydrocarbon-degrading Pseudomonas and patented it. This was the first time anyone had patented a living organism, and the fight over whether genetically engineered creatures could be patented started by Chakrabarty’s filing led to the Supreme Court’s Landmark 1980 decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that “A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under [Title 35 U.S.C.] 101. Respondent’s micro-organism constitutes a “manufacture” or “composition of matter” within that statute.” This decision made a huge impact on the biotechnology industry and is still hugely important today in debates over how synthetic biology can be regulated, how open-source synthetic biological components can be used and shared, and even how technologies based entirely on naturally occurring genes are patented and regulated.
Not only did the engineered oil-eating bacteria spark debate on ownership and patentability of living organisms, but it also began discussion of how and when genetically engineered organisms could be released into the environment. This question is far from solved, with the fate of genetically engineered organisms to clean up oil or perform other kinds of environmental bioremediation still unclear as the possible harm to the environment by uncontrolled growth of engineered strains is weighed against the environmental impact of what the bacteria are designed to clean up. In the case of the oil-eating bacteria, the interests of the oil company also play a role–you don’t want uncontrolled growth of an organism that eats your product getting into your wells. While such uncontrolled growth is unlikely because the bacteria need injection of other elemental fertilizers besides the carbon in the oil to grow, it is something that has been brought up. Importantly, however, the bacteria often just can’t compete with the scale of the disaster alone. The bacterial metabolism of crude oil cannot move faster than the oil kills wildlife, but oil-eating bacteria have been and will continue to be part of the long-term clean-up process for oil spills.
Needless to say, this is a complicated issue, highlighting many of the ethical, environmental, social, economic, and political implications of genetic engineering technology. As we have seen over the last few weeks, there is no magic bullet for fixing this particular oil spill or for producing plentiful energy safely. Engineered bacteria could play an active role in solving both problems, hopefully safely and with everyone’s best interests in mind.