Bioscience can't take on all the ethics issues

19 June 2008

Last week, a group of social scientists from the University of Nottingham released their report on the ethical problems facing the technology of synthetic biology. Commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the report called for a "thorough review of existing controls and safeguards" to extend them to synthetic biology.

Not just that. The public needs to be involved and may even be in the position to stop certain kinds of research: "It is vital to recognise the importance of maintaining public legitimacy and support. In order to achieve this, scientific research must not get too far ahead of public attitudes and potential applications should demonstrate clear social benefits."

This is from a different section but covers similar ground: "Partnership with civil society groups, social scientists and ethicists should be pursued as a highly effective way of understanding critical issues, engaging with publics and winning support for emerging scientific fields. However, at the same time it must be recognised that this is a two-way process and that some ethically problematic scientific projects and potentially controversial technologies may have to be abandoned in order to maintain trust."

This all sounds good in principle. But it is a process that could lead to some seriously strange decisions being made as to which branches of biological research are pursued and which are terminated. For a good many of the ethical issues that surround synthetic biology do not lie in the research but in the application. And in many cases, the economics of the application.

Take biofuels, for example. The lead story in today's Guardian by Julian Borger and John Vidal covers the contents of the Gallagher report, due to be published next week, on the role of biofuels in the current food shortage. Organisations are trading numbers as to what degree the production of biofuel feedstocks has had on the supply of food. But it seems the team led by Professor Ed Gallagher, head of the Renewable Fuels Agency, has concluded that EU governments were wrong to set targets for biofuel adoption without taking land use into account.

According to the story, the report draws a distinction between the first generation of biofuels - basically those in production today - and the second generation which will expand the amount of plant material that can be used to produce ethanol and other fuels. My piece in the technology section looks at the role that synthetic biology is likely to play in the development of those fuels as well as the following generations, which will attempt to substitute hydrogen for carbon-based fuels.

In principle, feedstock plants for the second-generation fuels will not displace food crops. In some cases, they could be one and the same. The stover from maize could go into fuel production with the main crop being used for animal feed, if not corn-on-the-cob. As some crops, such as the one planned by Agrivida, will modify the genes of a maize plant, the latter is less likely - most of today's genetically modified maize goes either into fuel or animal feed - but there are companies working on bugs that can digest leaves and stalks without needing an altered plant. Which direction the industry takes will depend on how efficient the processes are and it is way too early to decide on that one.

However, that "in principle" is a big assumption. There is no guarantee that a technique based on synthetic biology can guarantee that economic conditions will lead to an undesired effect. One, as yet unanswered question in the use of 'waste' biomass for producing fuel is how much of the plant do you need to lead behind in the ground. If you removed everything during the harvesting process, you would be creating the conditions for a dustbowl. How much biomass need to remain behind is currently an open question. In the case of corn stover, it is far from being all of it. But there is an upper limit. It's a similar situation for rice, rape, sugar and the forests that could potentially produce bug-ready biomass.

There is no-one involved in biofuel-technology research who wants to create a dustbowl. Or, if there is, I haven't found them yet. However, it is economic incentives and regulations such as those imposed by the EU on the current generation of biofuels that can distort a market effectively enough for the conditions to be right to wreak havoc on the agricultural system. It is practically impossible for any researcher to design out that possibility from what are going to be pretty fundamental technologies. And the more you look into an area such as synthetic biology, you realise how many different research themes are intertwined. Even if you thought banning one of them would prevent the dustbowl scenario, which one would you ban?

It is worth bearing in mind that previous interventions using food crops in the widest sense have caused more localised disruption. The World Bank and others spent years telling some countries they should plant more coffee, only for those robusta producers to find they were feeding their produce into a massive world glut, and not from potentially more lucrative cash food crops. It's hardly a surprise that similar things should have happened with the biofuels business.

Over-promise is a problem with any technology. LS9's contention that it could serve the US demand for petrol with a biorefinery the size of Chicago seems not unreasonable, especially when you divide that down into smaller producers, although perhaps not as many as Rob Carlson envisages - he is looking forward to the day when every home has its own refinery. However, what is not clear is just how much sugar or biomass has to go in through the gate to produce 140 million barrels a week. The US Department of Agriculture was a lot more circumspect about using biomass for fuel in its 2004 report: a third of the US fuel demand looked ambitious then and it still is, although it is not impossible as long as some technologies come good.

It's hard to argue against having a more open dialogue in and around science. But pushing the ethical debate too far upstream is not going to achieve the effect that anyone wants. Except for the fundamental ethical issues - things such as cloning - it can work. But, very often, the potential ethical nightmares do not reveal themselves until much later. Blaming basic science for them is not going to achieve better results.