Talkin' bout a revolution

27 April 2008

Last week, two events in London showed how far apart the views can be on what, to some, is the beginning of the future of chemical engineering and what to others is simply the beginning of the end.

At the IET's BioSysBio conference, which kicked off last Sunday, Professor Richard Kitney of Imperial College, London, argued that synthetic biology is the engine of a third industrial revolution. He pointed to the discoveries of the mid-19th Century and how they drove the rise of the synthetic chemical industry.

The problem that conventional synthetic chemistry has is that it is a brute-force process. It excels at producing simple molecules in high volume. But complex chemicals, particularly those needed for drugs, are expensive to manufacture. And it is no good for producing fuels because you have to put more energy in than you will ever get out.

Cells are chemical factories in miniature that are very good at producing complex chemical structures. Unfortunately, nature has not seen fit to evolve a petrol-producing bacterium. Synthetic biology opens up a future when gene reprogramming will make it possible to develop a bacterium that can turn sunlight and excess carbon dioxide into petrol or ethanol.

However, it does not take long for the ethical issues to surface. Opponents to this kind of technology worry the world will end up covered in toxic green goo pumped out by bugs gone bad.

At BioSysBio, scientists were concerned that synthetic biology could go the way of genetically modified (GM) crops, with stifling restrictions put on research and exploitation of the technology.

A few days later, it was easy to see why. Prof Kitney was also one of the speakers at the Royal Society of Chemistry's Engineering Life seminar. Biosafety was not meant to be top of the agenda, but it ended up that way. The first person I met, just before it kicked off, was a health and safety specialist from one of the London colleges.

During the seminar, Professor John McCarthy of the University of Manchester's Interdisciplinary Biocentre, wanted to take questions on the science before going on to the ethics and safety issues. However, the Q&A bypassed the science entirely and went straight for the safeguards.

As Baron Patrick Jenkin of Roding put it from the audience side: "We have moved immediately into this area. And that is why I am here...I don't think the public has begun to hoist onboard the huge potential risks and benefits."

Lord Jenkin said he planned to table a question in the House of Lords on biosafety regulation: "Is the current system of regulation sufficient to cover synthetic biology? If the public are going to be satisfied they need to be confident that the system of regulation is keeping an eye on it."

Although the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) put out a report on synthetic biology at the beginning of the year, the debate at political level has barely started in the UK. It's not exactly racing ahead in other countries. Researchers from the J Craig Venter Institute, which is pushing ahead with research into synthetic genomes, co-authored a report on governance which largely concentrated on bioterrorism threats.

"It was an interesting assumption that this seemed to cover all the social and ethical issues," said Brian Wynne, associate director of the ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics at the Engineering Life seminar. He wryly quoted from one of the papers published by the JCVI last year, which described the transplantation of a genome from one strain of bacteria into the cells of another. One line said: "The societal and ethical implications have been explored". It referred to a paper from Science written in 1999 and the Options for Governance.

Regulation may be the least of anyone's worries. Personally, I think the framework will not change all that much from what we have today, other than some additional safeguards that focus on the companies that produce DNA sequences based on recipes provided by researchers. That is not because of indolence but because most of the core technologies needed for synthetic biology were introduced in the early 1970s. The two changes since then have been the rise of DNA sequencing as an industry and an improved understanding of what genes do. It is worth remembering that, in the mid-1970s, scientists accepted tight rules over what could be done with the then novel technique of recombinant DNA which were then loosened slightly as it became apparent that some risks had been over-estimated.

The problem is the role of industry. If synthetic biology works - and there are few reasons to believe that it won't, even if the reality falls short of what the JCVI is promising - industrial exploitation is inevitable. But the antics of companies such as Monsanto did as much as anything to turn the public off even the idea of GM. A rush toward exploitation is likely to trigger a similar reaction - the antibodies are now in the system.