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Risks, Rewards, and Bioethics

29 June 2010

Last week in Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs discussed synthetic biology with what I like to call the “cut and paste” journalist’s response to any emerging field of science:

People are bound to disagree about when scientists are crossing some moral Rubicon. That is all the more reason to debate, in public and in advance, where those boundaries lie — rather than doing so after the fact, when researchers are celebrating some technical triumph and the rest of us are wondering what price we will pay for it.

Virtually every discovery in biotech comes with a comet’s tail of part-celebratory, part-concerned commentary…”this is great, but let’s talk it over.” Here, Gibbs’s consternation is directed at last month’s news that scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute were able to make “synthetic cells.” Basically, these are cells which only contain DNA made by the researchers, and are able to grow and multiply like any other bacteria.

However, the same article could have (and has been) written about any number of breakthroughs, from cloning to genetically modified crops. Not to pick on this particular piece, but as journalists writing about science, I think we have largely failed in giving the discovery du jour any sort of context that would allow for the kind of public debate that Gibbs wants to have.

Bringing it back to her piece, she twice stresses a desire for “oversight,” without explaining what that would entail. That’s largely because synthetic biology is past the point where top-down oversight is feasible. (Though obviously no one told President Obama: his bioethics commission is meeting to discuss the field next week.) In the only chapter of my book that’s been drafted so far, I compare it to downloading music and movies. For better or worse, the technology is out there, and the users aren’t necessarily receptive to being restricted.

I’ve often made comments along these lines, and every time I do, people think I’m trying to warn them that synthetic biology is bad news. It’s not; in fact, I’m fully supportive of the work being done and believe that in one form or another, it will be able to substantially improve lives. But I want people to understand that this is different, not because of any one discovery, but because more people now have the opportunity to use the tools of molecular biology to understand the world around them. Too many journalists miss that, and it’s a shame, because I think they’re missing one of the most significant stories of the early 21st century.

Word count: 3000, first draft of Chapter 1 is done!

Creative Commons photo by scalibur001.

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