The Church of Scotland on Synthetic Biology

Unlike many of my colleagues, I'm not really interested in the whole "science vs. religion" thing, but I do want to point out the very thoughtful analysis of genetic engineering and synthetic biology by the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion, and Technology Project. On GM food, they write:

The official scientific and economic reports support the view of the 1999 Assembly, that GM is not a simple 'yes or no' issue and must be taken case-by-case, weighing up many different factors. Theologically, SRT has found no convincing reason to say it is a wrong act to transfer genes into a crop from a different species. We do not support the argument from the organic lobby that GM is opposed to nature. In Christian ethics, what is natural is an ambiguous moral guide. Humans have also intervened fundamentally in countless ways since our primitive ancestors walked the earth - including some dramatically 'unnatural' uses of selective breeding. We do not draw a fixed line at GM, just because it's GM. On the other hand, the way God through evolution has ordered the creation is not to be treated lightly, so we advocate precaution about risks. None of our present ways of growing food are risk free, so it's not a case of "if in doubt don't". But novel aspects of GM need careful assessment. While no significant health problems have emerged, spotting any long term effects in the wider population of millions who have eaten GM food is like looking for a needle in a haystack. More specific research on potential health risks is needed, but in general GM seems no more likely to be a cause of major health problems than conventional food, provided tests and regulations are adhered to properly.

Only some applications would be acceptable, however. Our 1999 Church of Scotland report urged that GM crops should focus on applications with obvious benefit to people or the environment. The GM tomato paste on sale in the mid-1990's was cheaper to both producers and consumers because less energy was used in production, and according to taste panels, it tasted better than non-GM tomatoes. It was easily segregated and labelled as GM produce. In contrast, the main GM crops being now being considered by the UK Government may not meet our criteria. Oil seed rape, forage maize and sugar beet made resistant to weed killers do not offer tangible benefits to consumers. In a climate of consumer scepticism of GM foods, the official economic report concludes that costs savings to farmers could be outweighed by the lack of a market. Only GM animal feed or crops for export may be economically attractive to growers.

A brand new report on synthetic biology is similar in its message of cautiously embracing new biological technologies with awareness of both the potential risks and potential benefits. According to AllMedia Scotland:

The authors of the report acknowledge that from novel forms of biofuels to improved medical interventions, the manipulation of micro-organisms in the ways envisaged by synthetic biology has "the potential to revolutionise much of our lives".

However, despite some protestations to the contrary, the report argues that synthetic biology does not put humanity on a par with God and that our "creatureliness remains". It believes this field of research, which has been styled as "creating life" and "Life, version 2.0", holds out much promise, but also brings many concerns....

However, the paper affirms that synthetic biology is a new scientific application which, if used correctly, could revolutionise medicine, transform the primary and secondary sector of industry and offer solutions to energy and environmental problems. If appropriate legislation and effective control could make sure that all potential risks were eliminated, or at least avoided, there is no compelling reason to stop or ban synthetic biology.

The report argues that everybody, including the Christian world, could welcome this scientific innovation. It says eliminating human suffering, protecting the environment, promoting general well-being and advancing scientific knowledge using reason and human ingenuity are goals in harmony with Christian teaching.

People on all sides of the debates about genetic engineering, the environment, and even science/religion can benefit from such open-minded analysis of these complex issues. You don't have to believe in anything you don't want to to be thoughtful and understanding of the concerns and interests of all people.


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Dear Microbe Hunter Agapakis,

You may have seen this when it came out.
NYTimes âBathing but not aloneâ about bacteria in the water/showers.
Pretty neat.

"There are some things it is better just not to think about. Like the 10,000 bacteria you inhale with each breath in the average office building. Or the 10 million bacteria in each glass of tap water. Microbiologists have now added something else to the list of things too gross to contemplate: the deluge of bacteria that hit your face and flow deep into your lungs in the morning shower."

The article is on my fridge!

By Church of Latt… (not verified) on 12 May 2010 #permalink

Those people would probably have a heart attack if we informed them of the microbe counts in their mouths :p

Just intriguing.

Found the 1860 book review article for the Times on Darwin's origin, and it struck me as interesting and sad. It's not much of a stretch to say the latest theory adopted to answer life's old question 'Whence come I and whither to am I going?' was created 150 years ago by an amateur beetle catcher.
I wonder if evolution is best explained at the scale of the cell. It's amazing to watch videos of the replication fork.. and trna being transcribed.. but then u realize this is going on now in just 1 cell of my trillions, perhaps 1000 transcripts float in 1 cells watery pool.. and thousands of writhing moving mitochondria are boogying down their cell bridge microtubules. This to me is evolution, how this internal universe in 1 cell creates and adapts and has been passed on for billions of years, creating something as large in human scale as a dinosaur, and as small and complicated as yeast to make my Guiness beer.


Words from the grave.
NYTimes, 03/28/1860, Origins Book Review

' All the most eminent palaeontologists, cuvier, owen, and agassiz and all our greatest geologists, lyle, have vehemently maintained the immutability of species...
Mr. Darwin throws out.. a series of arguments and inferences so revolutionary as, if established, to necessitate a radical reconstruction of the fundamental doctrines of natural history. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological epochs, that we only gee that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were."…

By Professor Owen (not verified) on 14 May 2010 #permalink

Christina- First-time, first-time. But I greatly appreciate the subtlety exhibited in the Church of Scotland document, and even more so that it is coming from a European organization, as that continent has so far been mainly a source of unreasoning opposition to any and all GM crops.

Not everyone here is against GM crops though. I and my friends do oppose some versions, like the ones that produce their own pesticide or are more tolerant of a specific pesticide. The first because it doesn't have to be tested for safety on humans. The second since it is only a stop gap measure at best and harmful to the environment at worst.
But if for example you make it so the crop can survive in harsher conditions then by all means go ahead and fiddle.

By Who Cares (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink