The present gains and future benefits of synthetic biology are too great for it to be written off with fear-mongering maxims
“Playing God since 1660″ reads the motto on the Royal Society’s sign in a scene from The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, the latest film from the makers of Wallace and Gromit. And now I can no longer enter the doors of our national science academy without quoting the Pirate Captain’s rallying cry, “Prepare to be boarded, nerds!”.
Earlier this year I presented a BBC2 Horizon programme on synthetic biology. Our choice of title, Playing God, was not intended as a criticism of synthetic biologists, but rather to highlight an allegation they often face. Environmentalists, religious figures and sections of the media regularly use the phrase as a handy stick with which to beat those in the field. Scientists, they claim, are foolishly meddling in matters that should be left to the gods or nature.
That accusation has been made in attacks against many of the major scientific advances of the modern era, including Watson and Crick’s description of the structure of DNA in 1953; the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978; the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997; and the sequencing of the human genome in 2001. In all these scenarios, it’s not clear exactly what “playing God” actually means.
Synthetic biology means different things to different people. Its leading scientists want to create, characterise and, crucially, standardise individual pieces of DNA. The purpose is to build biological circuits with specific functions, in much the same way that you might arrange components to make an electrical circuit. Others want to produce new versions of genetic code with entirely new letters and entirely unnatural versions of DNA.
The ability to design and build biological systems provides a new way to understand how living things work, yet the field is much more about engineering than it is about pure science. However, many synthetic biologists are seeking to solve problems in more efficient ways than traditional engineering does, with potential applications ranging from fighting pollution and cancer to manufacturing fuel and drugs.