"Playing God since 1660" reads the motto on the Royal Society's sign in a scene from The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. This gag at the expense of the UK’s national science academy is just one of the litany of background jokes in the joyous recent film made by the creators of Wallace and Gromit. I can’t enter the doors of the Royal Society now without quoting the pirate captain’s rallying cry of "Prepare to be boarded, nerds!"
Earlier this year I presented a BBC2 Horizon programme on the exciting new field of synthetic biology. Our choice of the title Playing God was not intended as a criticism of synthetic biologists, rather it highlighted the allegation they often face. Environmentalists, religious figures and sections of the media use the phrase as a handy stick with which to beat those in the field on a regular basis. They claim that scientists are foolishly poking their noses into matters that should be left to the gods or nature, and that we will live to regret it if we don't curb their meddling.
I don’t know whether 17th century scientists faced the same accusation, but it is one that has certainly been made in articles about a host of major scientific advances in the modern era. It was levelled at Watson and Crick in 1953 when they described the structure of DNA, and at Stanley Miller in the same year when he simulated conditions on the early Earth to look for the chemical origins of life. More recent examples include the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown in 1978, the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997, the sequencing of the human genome in 2001, and Craig Venter's unveiling of a living bacterial cell carrying a synthetic genome in 2010. In all these scenarios, it’s not clear exactly what “playing God” actually means.
Like love, synthetic biology means different things to different people. The field is led by scientists who want to create, characterise and, crucially, standardise individual pieces of DNA. The purpose of this stringent design is to build biological circuits with specific functions, in much the same way that you might arrange components to make an electrical circuit. DNA encodes the programming of all living things via a simple alphabet of just four letters. The order of these letters determines biological functions via genes and other encrypted messages. But the fact that this system is universal in all living things means that we have the ability to assemble new functions by remixing DNA from almost any origin. If that weren't impressive enough, other synthetic biologists want to create 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. The work of many synthetic biologists aims to design new biological toolkits to solve problems in more efficient ways than traditional engineering. The research has potential applications related to pretty much every major global issue humanity is currently facing, from breaking down pollutants and getting fuels from cells, to manufacturing drugs and fighting cancer.
The ability to design and build biological systems provides a new way to understand how living things work
A high-water mark of the field is the work of Jay Keasling and his team at the University of California, Berkeley, on creating synthetic circuits for yeast cells that produce a chemical called artemisinin. It’s a key drug for treating malaria, and in nature comes from the plant Artemisia annua. It can be farmed but is slow to grow, extraction is expensive and supply is dependent on crop success. Malaria killed more than 1.2 million people in 2010, according to a study published in The Lancet earlier this year. Artemisinin produced using Keasling's method, with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is expected to hit the markets next year, at a fraction of the cost of the farmed drug.
Craig Venter is probably the only scientist working in the field of synthetic biology whose name is known outside the scientific community, but in my view his work, so far at least, is something of a distraction. In 2010 he announced that he and his colleagues had modified an existing genome, used a computer to create a copy and then implanted it into an existing cell. It was a breathtaking technical feat, showing quite how far we have come in our ability to manipulate DNA, but it wasn't really synthetic biology. Venter's coauthor on the paper was Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith, who, when asked at the time whether they were playing God, responded both brilliantly and hubristically: “We don’t play.”
NASA sees synthetic biology as a means of delivering its mission to explore space, and is keen to get in on the act. One project has them investigating ways to create bacteria that counter the effects of radiation sickness in astronauts. It has even looked at the feasibility of creating synthetic organisms using bacteria that secrete a chemical that can glue sand or crushed stone together. Because weight is one of the biggest constraints on space exploration, taking building materials with you is prohibitively expensive. But if you are taking cells that can build their own bricks, colonisation of the Moon or Mars becomes more realistic.
NASA sees synthetic biology as a means of delivering its mission to explore space, and is keen to get in on the act
Meanwhile a US-Swiss group has engineered a genetic circuit designed to detect and destroy cancer cells. In work published in the journal Science last year, they used a circuit that calculates whether a cell is malignant or not, and then induced suicide in only those cells. So far it works in cells in culture, and clinical trials have yet to follow, but it could be a way to target individual cancer cells without causing the unintended damage that comes with the effective but blunderbuss approaches of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
There is an interesting cultural difference in the way synthetic biology is, in many instances, carried out both in the public interest and in a more democratic manner than other disciplines. This is due largely to the BioBricks Foundation, based at Stanford University, which seeks to ensure that research is carried out in an open and ethical manner. They are the drivers behind the project to standardise the component parts of synthetic biology to enable the creation of new circuits, and this is inherent to their ethos. The idea is that researchers collaborate in the designing and solving of problems, and that solutions are patent-free so that everyone can benefit. It’s an interesting, anti-corporate form of science that I don’t think I've seen before in my lifetime. At the same time, there are of course big companies that want to make money from synthetic biology and so have an interest in the ownership of technologies.
Synthetic biology is the next stage in the evolution of biology. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and as the 19th Century gave way to the 20th, the birth of genetics came with the greater appreciation among scientists of Gregor Mendel’s earlier work on inheritance.
In 1953, Crick and Watson used Rosalind Franklin’s work to figure out that DNA was the iconic double helix, and soon afterward it was established as the universal genetic code. Genetic modification or engineering – the ability to transfer bits of DNA between organisms in order to change their attributes – began in the 1970s. But now, with the advent of synthetic biology, we can not only cross the species barrier in creating new genetic circuits, we can design, redesign and remix organisms from scratch.
Prometheus, a titan in Greek mythology, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, allowing the progress of civilisation. His divine punishment was to be bound to a rock and have his liver plucked out by an eagle, and re-grown overnight so that his ordeal could be played out again and again. The idea – and the negative connotations – of humans acquiring god-like powers is culturally embedded in legends like this.
Yet there is almost no aspect of our behaviour that isn't some form of manipulation of the environment for our own uses. The 'Pirates!' mock version of the Royal Society might have been playing God since the 17th century, but humans have been doing it since our species was born. Almost everything in our culture has been brought on by our invention of technology, from Promethean fire through to farming, medicine and exploration. The sense that farming is somehow “natural” is deeply misguided. We've been farming for more than 10,000 years, and it is quite the opposite of natural. Breeding is more scientifically called “artificial selection”. Farming is the process of mixing genes by design to engineer cheap and plentiful food. It is the control and manipulation of living systems for our benefit. In other words, to adopt the parlance of the detractors of synthetic biology, farming is playing God.
To adopt the parlance of the detractors of synthetic biology, farming is playing God
It might sound like a neat phrase, but its precise meaning is opaque. The accusers in the current case of synthetic biology, such as Friends of the Earth, use it to provoke emotive and visceral opposition to new technology, without defining what it is about it that is qualitatively different to the previous advances they enjoy and benefit from every day in their lives. With its willy-nilly historical deployment as a glib catch-all for any new tech, its bite is rendered toothless. Should we revert to the time before we knew about DNA? Should we go back to the time before humans started playing God by developing sanitation, vaccines and measures to counter widespread child mortality? Or should we return to a pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer lifestyle?
Is using genes as a toolkit to address many of our global problems really so different to knapping a flint arrowhead to help you hunt a woolly mammoth? Or the domestication of rice from its wild ancestors? Fundamentally they are all examples of the manipulation of nature on the great continuum of human evolution. I believe synthetic biology is bringing about an industrial revolution, in the same way that the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally changed manufacturing.
Synthetic biology is at something of a turning point. The UK government recently announced further funding for feasibility studies to demonstrate uses of synthetic biology in commercial settings, and the Obama administration is investing in the US’s bio-economy, specifically including synthetic biology. There will be very few aspects of our lives that won’t be touched by it. It is true that advancing technology is not risk-free, and needs to be regulated and understood and if necessary, curtailed. But those decisions need to be made as part of informed public conversations about the relative risks and benefits. The opportunities are too great for synthetic biology to be written off with fearmongering maxims.
If “playing God” involves developing technologies that cure diseases, clean up pollution and create new forms of fuel, then these potential benefits need to be considered without the burden of simplistic sound bites. Only with engaged and rational public conversations about what a technology like synthetic biology means, and what it can and can’t achieve, can we build a better future.