Biosafety has been on everyone's mind this week after the announcement of the J. Craig Venter Institute's successful transplantation of a synthetic genome. What horrible pathogen will future bioengineers be able to design? What unforeseeable environmental catastrophe will befall us upon the release of genetically engineered bacteria? These are hugely important questions as research in synthetic biology moves forward, being discussed in congressional hearings and as an integral part of every new synthetic biology design.
As the major proposed goal of a great deal of synthetic biology research is the production of biofuels, it's perhaps an unfair comparison, but I think an important one, to think about how our energy infrastructure has already damaged our health and our environment when we consider the risks of bioengineering. Biofuels right now cannot compete with the oil industry in efficiency or production, but biotechnology hasn't had a Chernobyl or a Deepwater Horizon. There are always risks inherent in the development of any new technology, and it's important to weigh all the possible realistic risks and benefits as we develop new biological tools and technologies so that synthetic biology never has an ecological disaster on the same scale. Biology can do many things efficiently, cleanly, and sustainably, we have to learn how to work with biology to create a new and safe infrastructure.
Is biology scarier than oil spills? What is the worst case scenario for a released fuel-producing microorganism? How does it compare to the worst case scenario in oil disasters or climate change? Adding a few genes to organisms like yeast, which we already use in our food and our daily life, is extremely unlikely to change the organism into anything more than a slightly-less-fit-to-survive-in-the-wild, fuel producing yeast. Ethanol is made naturally by wild yeast, which is why we use it to brew alcoholic beverages, but ethanol is not a particularly good energy source, actually leading to more greenhouse gas emissions than oil in many cases. Rerouting the metabolism of yeast away from ethanol and into better fuels through synthetic biology, such as bio-gasoline or bio-jetfuel, can bring us much closer to the goal of energy independence and carbon neutrality, but a lot more work must be done. Other organisms being explored as the "chassis" for synthetic biology pathways that can produce energy are similarly safe, non-pathogenic, non-toxic organisms that are already part of our natural environment, such as algae (which is edible and since it's photosynthetic, taking in carbon dioxide from the air, likely to be carbon-negative) and even the much-harassed E. coli, which is normally harmless except for the few bad strains that get all the attention.
Why is biology scary to so many people? We've done a very good job of sterilizing our lives, separating ourselves from biology to the extant that when we think of the word bacteria we immediately think of infection that needs to be wiped out, not something that is part of our bodies, part of our everyday ecosystem that keeps us alive. Coupled with how we've separated ourselves from the sources of the things we consume, the idea of introducing energy production at a local scale, literally in our backyards, by genetically engineered bacteria can be very frightening. Jonah Lehrer introduces this separation of producer and consumer in his characteristically beautiful fashion in a recent post on The Frontal Cortex:
This oil spill sure is getting depressing. We've become extremely talented at hiding away the ill effects of our consumption decisions. We don't see the inhumane chicken farms behind our chicken McNuggets, or the Chinese factories that produce our shoes, or the offshore oil rigs that extract our oil from the center of the earth. The end result is that, when we're finally forced to confront the ugliness that makes our civilized life possible, we're shocked and appalled. My cheap ground beef comes from that feedlot? My gas station depends on that infrastructure?
The danger of this lifestyle is that we become blind to potential problems. Because we don't think about feedlots, we don't worry (enough) about antibiotic resistance in cattle. Because those rigs are so far offshore - outta sight outta mind - we haven't prepared for the possibility of this epic disaster. As a result, the unlikely event becomes inconceivable - this is the availability heuristic at work - and the inherent riskiness of a situation is underestimated.
The way that we produce and consume energy is going to change, and hopefully it will change through reduction in consumption along with the development of efficient, sustainable infrastructure and safe fuel sources. I don't have anywhere close to all the answers (or even all the right questions that need to be asked), but I hope that as biology is reintroduced into our lives, in our probiotic yogurts, our home gardens, and someday in synthetic biology enabled medicine and distributed energy production that we can all come to better understand the possible risks and be better equipped to deal with any problems that do arise. In the meantime, I hope that the leak in the Gulf of Mexico can be plugged, the oil quickly and safely cleaned up, the workers well taken care of, and the lesson learned about risks and where our energy comes from.
Why is biology scary to so many people? We've done a very good job of sterilizing our lives, separating ourselves from biology to the extant that when we think of the word bacteria we immediately think of infection that needs to be wiped out, not something that is part of our bodies, part of our everyday ecosystem that keeps us alive.
Ooh, I think you hit the nail on the head right there. I think a lot of people's perception of "genetic engineering = OMG FRANKENSTEIN" if they'd try changing their soil acidity and obtaining a blue hydrangea where once was a red one. (Or something similar; that was an offhand example.)