Presidential Panel Scrutinizes Synthetic Biology

Scientists are cutting and pasting genes to create engineered organisms that may yield new vaccines and biofuels, but what are the ethical implications of toying with DNA? Geneticist George Church discusses synthetic biology, and why scientists need to be careful with the technology.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about something new. Craig Venter - remember Craig Venter's Synthia, the cell completely made up of computer-generated synthetic genes?

Well, following Venter's announcement, President Obama called a commission to look into the ethical issues surrounding this technology, called synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is the creation of standard genetic pieces, like DNA. You take them, you cut them up, paste them together into living systems. It's sort of like building with LEGOs or transistors, and the idea with synthetic biology is to engineer a biological circuit, let's say, to manufacture what you want it - what you want the circuit to do. Maybe it makes biofuels or a vaccine, for example.

But with the potential benefits also come risks, and that is what the president asked the commission to look into. He asked them to consider the implications and the risks and return with a recommendation for policy. And he gave them six months to work on this, and they've done it in record time.

The President's Commission on Bioethical Issues met yesterday and today to discuss these issues and how they relate to synthetic biology. And one of the speakers at yesterday's meeting is my guest, George Church, director of the Personal Genome Project and professor of genetics at Harvard Med School in Boston. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor GEORGE CHURCH (Genetics, Harvard Medical School; Director, Personal Genome Project): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Was it a good meeting, do you think?

Prof. CHURCH: It was really terrific. I think many of the participants in it, both on the commission and the people that were just there for the day, were very pleased with the fact that the executive branch was taking an interest in this, and I think we and seeing all the progress that's been made recently.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Our number: 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk to us about synthetic biology. We're talking with George Church. George, define that term better for me. I didn't do such a good job. But what is synthetic biology?

Prof. CHURCH: Well, it's an effort to apply the engineering principles that have been applied to many other sectors - civil engineering, biological engineering, mechanical and electrical engineering - specifically to synthetic genes and genomes that are made from data in the computer. So basically, we're going from bits to genomes, and doing that in a way that includes some of the things that you take for granted in other engineering fields, like safety engineering, computer-aided design, large-scale testing, and so on.

So it sounds at first blush a little bit like genetic engineering, which we've had for decades, but the difference is that it's much more of an engineering discipline now.

FLATOW: Well, if it's an engineering discipline, I'm picturing in my mind that you could sit at the computer and dial up the parts of DNA that you want to put together. The computer makes a little picture, you press a button, and it goes into little vats of chemicals and pulls out the pieces.

Prof. CHURCH: That is certainly part of not just the vision, but some of the day-to-day practice. That's it's not the case for any realm of engineering that you can simply design something and press a button and you've got a bridge or a car. There's trial and error in every field, and it's certainly true for the latest, most exciting fields, this will particularly have troubles with prediction and models and so forth. But it's very, very conceptually, a lot of that is in my place already.

FLATOW: So what's to prevent me from buying a kit or a machine that can do this and putting, you know, putting the little numbers in there and creating my own virus, if I wanted to?

Prof. CHURCH: Well, it's sort of like what's preventing you from, you know, building your own cell phone, building up a manufacturing facility that will build I mean, to some extent, it's not cost-effective for you to do that, and there is all kinds of secret sauce. It's not or just things that are complicated to do.

Now, people will say, oh, you know, biology is very simple and or at least the practice of it is simple. But there many things that actually require a great deal of education and infrastructure to do with any accuracy.

FLATOW: I guess the fear here is having this kind of technology being turned against us, or if someone wanted to build a virus that infected us, that was a harmful virus, you could use this kind of technology to do that.

Prof. CHURCH: Well, absolutely. I mean, almost all fields of engineering - I mean, you can turn a car into a car bomb. You can turn fertilizer used in agriculture engineering into a bomb. This is more serious in the sense that these are replicating entities, while, you know, a bomb is localized, a pollutant is localized, all of it can spread and become dilute.

There are elements - and I don't mean to say that this is so complicated that people - that anybody can't do it. We have, you know, undergraduates doing this. There are simple exercises that can be accomplished in short periods of time with low budgets. But overall, this is something the most hazardous things tend to require pretty large teams, with a great deal of structure and expertise.

But I think it's very important that we have commissions such as this presidential commission looking at this, planning for the future, as the costs drop and as the expertise starts to permeate throughout society.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I remember back in the '70s, when gene splicing was invented. There was a conference in Asilomar. I think it was 1974.

Prof. CHURCH: Right.

FLATOW: And the scientists said hey, we'd better stop our work and talk about where this is heading, and the ethical and the health implications of all these things.

Prof. CHURCH: Right.

FLATOW: Are we at a similar stage with this, and would scientists think of doing that kind of thinking?

Prof. CHURCH: Well, I think we've matured in two senses. One is in Asilomar, they were mostly worried about accidental problems with the technology, where we really didn't know what we were doing, and maybe we could do something that would go wrong.

For the most part, those fears have turned out to not be of any substance, but it was good that we went through that process. Now, there's because of 9/11 and other events, there's more concern about purposeful misuse, but even those are not considered major public health threats. The major threat is that we won't act and we won't solve our energy problems and our emerging disease problems and other problems of cities and so forth by not taking the opportunity and expanding the technology.

FLATOW: What does working in an ethically responsible manner - which I know that term has been used - mean for synthetic biologists?

Prof. CHURCH: Well, I mean, I think here, there's some blurring of ethnically responsible policy decisions and so forth, but basically, you should not be risking the health of the researchers, you know, by exposing them to, say, hazardous agents. And these could be non-synthetic agents. They could be natural agents that you begin to do research on, or they could be synthetic agents - not releasing those into the environment until they've been through proper testing, engaging a large number of different people in the conversation, I think, is something that's increasingly considered part of the ethical behavior.

I mean, it used to be that a scientist would try to become an expert on everything and would feel that they could think of every way that something could go wrong. But I think that now, it's much more a matter of inviting a large number of people who can think out of the box in different directions and really think of negative scenarios and positive ways of working around those and coming up with solutions.

And so what's really interesting about this presidential commission is it is public. So yesterday and today's sessions were open to the public, and people attended, and they were allowed to go up to the microphone. And there's a website, bioethics.gov, very easy website, that people can participate in.

So it's really intended to part of this ethical behavior is engaging people that can look at it from different angles, including international discussions.

FLATOW: We don't expect any treaties, laws, regulations to come out of this.

Prof. CHURCH: I think we do. I mean, I think that there is a lot of influence that comes from carefully reasoned discussion, and then summary in written documents that all people, not just American citizens, can refer to this document.

I think a very influential set of documents will come out of this, and there is already significant interest all the way to the level of the United Nations secretary general.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Greg in Syracuse, New York. Hi, Greg.

GREG (Caller): Hi, how are you doing, Ira? Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Go ahead.

GREG: I am a big science fiction buff. And what comes to mind when you talk about this is replicator technology where they take over the ship and have the artificial intelligence and basically decide that they want to make their own stuff instead of the stuff we tell them to make. How far off is this? Are, you know, we at that level of technology today? And what is the most practical use that he sees from this technology long term?

FLATOW: All right.

Prof. CHURCH: So restate two question there.

FLATOW: Let's go to reverse.

Prof. CHURCH: One is the replicators...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. CHURCH: ...and the other is what are the most use for long term. In a certain sense, almost everything to do with synthetic biology is about replication. And so we don't need to develop artificial intelligence or replicating machines. In fact, replicating machines is still a very challenging and interesting engineering task and may be quite useful in the future. But that's a separate thing.

We have replicating bio-machines already, almost everything we produce in synthetic biology. And that's actually part of the promise and the risk. They won't have a mind of their own very easily in the sense that, you know - not even the most advanced animals - and most of this is done in microorganisms. But we can certainly make hazardous replicators that aren't intelligent.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And part two is about what use is this, what practical...

Prof. CHURCH: Right. So the uses are actually - are going to be quite - are actually already arriving. So they are in less expensive and higher quality manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, of all sorts of specialty chemicals, of fuels, of materials. Some of those materials will be things that you recognize as biomaterials and others will be materials that you normally wouldn't think of as biological.

But the biology is the nanotechnology that works. It's something that's capable of atomically precise manufacturing that scales well partly because it replicates. And really, almost any complicated material you might want to make, maybe even things like large-scale integrated circuits to beat Moore's Law, all kinds of interesting smart materials, these are all within the realm of synthetic biology. And many of them are being delivered already, including fuels and chemicals and materials.

FLATOW: But we - but you're saying that we could have biology-making computers for us.

Prof. CHURCH: We could have biology-making sensors and either electrical or optical components that can compute in all sorts of ways that interface better with the real world or simply are smaller and more complex at higher density.

FLATOW: Talking about synthetic biology this hour at SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow talking with George Church. Tell us about some of the work that you do in synthetic biology.

Prof. CHURCH: Well, so we - both in synthetic biology and in personal genomics, a lot of our focus is on bringing the cost down. It's easy to scale things up by just spending more money. But in both of these fields, we've seen dramatic cost reductions partly through the work that we've done collaboratively with many other groups and companies, where we've seen as much as 100,000-fold reduction in cost over as little as five or six years. So this is - blows away that computing industry, Moore's Law curve where you have about 1.5-fold exponential improvement per year, this is more like tenfold exponential improvement per year. And that really opens up all sorts of new opportunities when you have something that's 100,000 or a million times less expensive than it was half a decade ago.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You're also director of the Personal Genome Project at Harvard.

Prof. CHURCH: That's right. Yes.

FLATOW: What's that project trying to achieve?

Prof. CHURCH: So that's taking off where this technology improvement starts. So the first thing is bring the cost of the human genome down from $3 billion down to where it is about now, which is around $3,000 to $9,000. And it will be down to less than $1,000, almost basically free to the consumer very soon. And - but ask, how do you add value to that? By making it interpretable.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CHURCH: And that requires that, in a certain sense, requires a lot of community involvement where every person who wants to can participate in science because they know their - they know how their genes play out in terms of their body. It's that kind of community involvement and...

FLATOW: But what if...

Prof. CHURCH: ...interconnection between genes, environments and traits.

FLATOW: What if people don't want to have their genome sequenced?

Prof. CHURCH: Well, there's absolutely no reason why someone should get it if they don't want to. Some people will want it so much that they'll pay for it up to, in the past, up to $300,000.

FLATOW: But you're saying it's going to be almost cheap or nothing.

Prof. CHURCH: It could be quite - it could be - it's already getting into the range where a variety of other entities in the medical community - insurance companies or employers or, you know, your health care providers - could pay for it for you and then recover their costs in various ways in reducing the overall health care cost.

FLATOW: Well, you just named three of the most scariest things to most people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CHURCH: Well, they're less scary than they used to be. I mean, we don't want to understate the scariness, but the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 actually made it illegal for them to discriminate against you. So the only way they can make money now is by helping you save them and yourself money and avoiding drugs that aren't good for you or are - you know, that either don't help you overcome whatever it is you want to overcome or are toxic.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CHURCH: So that can reduce medical costs, and it can be a win-win situation. But the - but this new law, in principle, prevents health care insurance discrimination and employers from discriminating.

FLATOW: Dr. Church, thanks for taking the time to be with us today.

Prof. CHURCH: Thank you.

FLATOW: And have a good weekend.

Prof. CHURCH: Bye-bye. Yeah.

FLATOW: George Church is director of the Personal Genome Project and professor of genetics at Harvard Med School up there in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

We're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk about replenishing our ever-diminishing number of brain cells. You know, we actually do make new brain cells, and now there's a chemical compound that's been discovered that may help preserve them, at least in laboratory mice. So, if you're a mouse, there's hope.

Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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