Constructing Life Creates Questions of Ethics Scientists are getting closer to creating artificial life in the lab. But is society ready for custom-made organisms? Synthetic biology has the potential to dramatically change fields from agriculture to medicine to zoology. But what protections need to be in place as research proceeds?
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Constructing Life Creates Questions of Ethics

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Constructing Life Creates Questions of Ethics

Constructing Life Creates Questions of Ethics

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JOE PALCA, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca sitting in for Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, we'll answer your questions about leap year. But up first, what if building an organism was as simple as running a computer program? Instead of a software program that told a computer how to process words, crunch numbers or play a game, a genetic program would give instructions for building an organism from its component parts - millions of tiny snippets of DNA.

Instead of hitting the print button, you hit the construct button and a synthesizer would start worrying and out pops a new virus or microbe or some other thing. Well, that sounds farfetched. It may be, but then again there was a time when no one would believe how much computing power would fit on a machine the size of a notebook.

Today, we'll be talking about synthetic biology and the progress scientists are making in building new life forms from scratch. We'll also consider issues raised by this research. Things like, who should control it and who should do it and what kinds of organisms they could make and who should own the technology. And our ideas about what it means to be alive might change if we can someday create life in the lab from its component parts.

If you'd like to join the discussion, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. And if you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our Web site at where you'll find links to our topic.

And now, I'd like to introduce my guests for this hour. First, Drew Endy is an assistant professor in the department of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He joins me today by phone from Boston.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Endy.

Dr. DREW ENDY (Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Thanks, Joe. Good afternoon.

PALCA: Good afternoon.

And Paul Rabinow is the author of several books, including "A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles" and "Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology." His most recent is "Marking Time on the Anthropology of the Contemporary," out last year from Princeton University Press. He is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Rabinow.

Dr. PAUL RABINOW (Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley): Thank you very much.

PALCA: And of course, we'd like to take your calls, so don't forget, you can join us at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TOTN.

And Drew Endy, let me start with you. I kind of posed the beginning of this discussion in terms of whole organisms, but maybe it's wrong to cast the whole notion of synthetic biology as thinking about it as, you know, as an entire thing. Is that - is it fair to say that you're looking at synthetic parts that make up biology?

Dr. ENDY: That's a good question. I think - how I look at it is to consider the whole of biotechnology, all the different things that you could use biology for, things that it might make for you, and then ask where are we with biotechnology today, right? So when I was born back in 1970 and grew up through the '70s, '80s, '90s and now, biotechnology was just getting started. So the whole field is about 30 years old.

If you consider it as a field you could ask, well, it's sort of a young adult right now, and how are we doing, how powerful is it, and how much more do we have to do. Where synthetic biology comes in is it says, well, if we were going to try and make biotechnology more useful and more powerful, how would we do that exactly? And this is where you get into inventing new tools and trying to make the whole process of engineering biology easier.

So when you talk about building an organism or constructing a genome, what that really indicates to me is there are some exciting new technologies or tools that let people build new pieces of DNA in ways that haven't been possible before. And then what you'd want to consider in addition to that would be all the different bits and pieces and how you would organize them and why you would be doing it in the first place and what the consequences of success are going to be.

And so to the extent that you can figure all of that out and put it under a nice label or an umbrella that would be synthetic biology for me.

PALCA: I see. And so how would you characterize the maturity of the field right now?

Dr. ENDY: You know, to go back to it, I think, they're sort of a young adult, where some great things have happened. You know, going back to production of drugs and bacteria for treating diseases like diabetes decades ago, we have a lot of work to do, right? So the reports that have come out most recently are terrific advances. There are the first reports, for example, of building a gnome, all of the genetic material for a microorganism from scratch, from information on a computer database and raw chemicals derived from sugar.

But, wow, you know, how do we figure out what sorts of new genomes to make and could we do it quicker, faster and cheaper and so on and so forth. So I think we haven't even scratched the surface of biotechnology if you wanted to dig into it a little bit.

PALCA: Well, okay.

So Paul Rabinow, turning to you and maintaining this analogy of the young adult or the - or maybe the tween - how would you characterize it? And I guess the other question that comes to mind is, you know, as we raise our young, we do have some guiding principles, but this is all new. Do any of the guiding principles that we bring with us from, let's say, our history with, you know, basic biology, do any of those inform us about how we should be dealing with this new synthetic biology?

Dr. RABINOW: Well, first of all, good morning. Good morning, Drew. And I completely agree with what Drew said, very eloquently put. I pay attention to analogies in particular and so we could use that analogy, we could use some others. But I think it's really important to understand that while a lot of attention has been given to potential things that could happen and/or accomplishments like Craig Venter's construction of a genome, there are more concrete things going on that Drew alluded to that are really quite spectacular at this point.

So Jay Keasling at Berkeley, who is head of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Center that both Drew and I are associated with, has engineered artemisinin, which is one of the few effective anti-malaria molecules left in the world. It's grown - it evolved in nature on the bark of a Chinese tree. And now, Jay, with the help of the Gates Foundation and One World Health, is producing this molecule both in yeast and in E. coli.

So this tells us really exciting and important things about how nature works and can be made to work.

PALCA: But - can I interrupt you for a second?

Dr. RABINOW: Sure.

PALCA: How does being able to produce artemisinin differ from, let's say, producing insulin, which people have also been able to produce using yeast and bacteria?

Dr. RABINOW: Well, this is where Drew's analogy comes in. The production of insulin, or human growth hormone or other such molecules, took an immense amount of time and work. And basically, was an attempt to imitate nature, to build the proteins in the same way that they had been built - more or less in the same way that they have been built in nature. Whereas, what Keasling's lab has done is to say, well, nature is - can be treated as if it was an engineering challenge and had machine-like qualities, and we can build pathways into organisms that were no way evolved to produce this molecule.

And then - and this is really important - we continue to do that in a way that will do something that's beneficial to humanity and will build pathways not only within the organism itself, but out through other kinds of institutions, such that the science is beneficial both for learning how nature works and can be made to work, but also for addressing an extremely important problem in ways that is both more rapid and efficient than the current international agencies have been able to do.

PALCA: All right. We are - let's hear what - because this raises a whole passel of questions, and I want to hear what some of our listeners think about this. So let's first go to the phones now and go to Tyson(ph) in Fremont, California.

Tyson, welcome to the program.

TYSON (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a big fan of your show.

PALCA: Thanks.

TYSON: My question is for everybody involved. My wife and I are vegan and so we have a deep respect for life and - just in general. And my question was, how do you think this is going to impact people who view life in general? Do you think it will, you know, help them realize that there's life all around us and it's valuable and special and unique? Or do you think it'll have the opposite effects to where, you know, people will start to see life as just another thing to be made in a factory? Do you think people will, you know, go the other end to where they will have a complete disrespect or they just see it as a commodity like we would see a computer or a car?

PALCA: Important question. Yeah.

Paul Rabinow - maybe I can ask the anthropologist - can pitch that in your direction.

Dr. RABINOW: Sure. I think that's an open question and that the public debate and the responsibility of the scientists involved will play a big role into how things ramify. But keep in mind, one of the leaders of the field, Craig Venter, who you've had on before, took a year off and sailed around the world on his yacht and sampled tens of thousands of genomes and showed that in nature itself there's an immense amount of genetic activity and swapping of genes.

And a lot of very interesting processes whereby organisms develop resistance to certain environments, change their dynamics, and what have you. So I think at one level - and this is my position - one has a lot to learn about how nature or life or evolution actually works and to not take an overly restricted view of that.

So what Drew and Jay and other people are trying to do is to learn from nature, but also to see that nature itself is an extremely dynamic and changeable set of processes. So we have to get out of the 19th century view that nature is static and fixed or mechanical in some simple way. And to find both better analogies and both better research technology.

Now, can that lead to disastrous or dangerous or risky consequences? Absolutely. So this is the time at the beginning of this exciting field - and Drew has been a leader in raising these issues - that we need to raise public awareness and we need to talk to the scientific community, in my view, to make them aware of the fact that this whole coming into maturity of biotechnology is done in the right way.

PALCA: Drew Endy, you know, I was going to ask, have you a perspective now having worked in this field for the many years you have?

Dr. ENDY: That is a really wonderful question that was raised by the caller. The, you know, first thing to say is within the research community whether you're a scientist or an engineer, the capability to construct an organism is going to be an amazingly powerful way to discover and learn how life works…

PALCA: Right.

Dr. ENDY: …within the laboratory setting. But the caller's question really was much more powerful than that. It touched on how, you know, everybody's view of the living world might change - will it lead to a more respect or commoditization of life processes. And I think, as Paul mentioned, you know, quite expertly, it could go either way or probably will happen both ways. The way I would consider it, you know, by bringing up a different example would be to remember what happened with computing and electronics where computers, say around 1950, were very exclusive technology in their electronic form. And they were deployed against problems, you know, such as designing hydrogen bombs or computing the trajectories of munitions for the military.

Within 25 years, many individuals had become so fed up with limited access to computing that they went off and invented the personal computer, which then led to many, many other dreams being realized around computer technologies, right, whether you want to call the iPhone a high watermark of that is just up to you.

PALCA: Drew Endy, we have to take a short break so I'll cut you off there, but we'll come back and talk more about this. We're talking about synthetic biology. Stay with us.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


We're talking this hour about synthetic biology. My guests are Paul Rabinow, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley, and Drew Endy, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

And, Drew Endy, at the end you were saying that when there was an attempt to put restrictions and people became frustrated with restrictions on computers, they went out and invented the personal computer which, of course, you know, took people who might have been afraid of technology and said, too bad, we're developing it anyway. And I want to carry that analogy a little further. I mean, is there going to be a way to keep the lid on things that people might not want to have happen with the synthetic biology?

Dr. ENDY: There are ways one could imagine, but I think the costs associated with them would be tremendous. And, you know, I don't think you should consider it as, you know, the technology is getting out of the box somehow, but rather it's a really exciting technology in the same way that computers were exciting to people because you could, well, compute - being able to program the stuff of life itself to engineer biology is incredibly exciting to many people. And so it's almost as if there's a pent-up demand for people to have access to biotechnology.

To come back to the caller's question, you know, as people have different values and want to constructively celebrate them, you need to pay or perhaps even participate in the development and application of the technology so that we can work through what those issues are. As Paul was saying, I think, it could go either way, right? Will it lead to a better understanding and celebration of life itself as we become closer with it and participate more directly in taking responsibility for genetic material and the changes we make to it, or will it be a locked-up, you know, pessimistic technology that commoditizes our existence. You know, again, it's going to be up to everybody who participates in the conversations and the practice of developing the technology.

Dr. RABINOW: Right.

PALCA: Right. Paul Rabinow, you were going to add something.


PALCA: Go ahead.

Dr. RABINOW: Two points. First, commodification is a word that is used in seemingly in an entirely negative way. But living here in Berkeley in California, the Alice Waters and Chez Panisse and natural foods were - have introduced a tremendous improvement and remediation of our food supply and what we eat. But they're also a business. So I don't think there is any necessary and inherent contradiction between growing wonderful arugula in the Sierras and selling them. So the question is not so much whether we're in pure life and pure business, but how the ramifications and combinations of those vectors can be put to improve the quality of all of our lives. So that's one point.

The second point is I think the two major things that we need to do now in a globalized world connected by the Internet and furthermore in which the centers of science are no longer just the United States and Europe, but now are China and India and Brazil and Mexico and South Africa and many other places. We live in a globalized world now connected by the Internet. The idea of national regulations seems extremely limited.

So I think we need to do two things, and I know Drew agrees. First, we need as much open-sourced discussion as possible. We need a much better education system in which young scientists and young economists learn more than just their subspecialties. And then we need an open world in which we don't put on visa restrictions on scientists, but we make the most contact possible because that's the way that people will know what's going on in each other's lives around the world.

And that's the way that the very best of science, the enlightenment hope for science, can be encouraged. But if you build barriers and close down walls and don't allow people to travel and put government restrictions on what's going on, you're asking for trouble in the long run. And it's not actually going to provide the security that people think it is.

So this is a very exciting moment, but the world is a very dangerous place right now and I think Drew and I are very much both on the same side of encouraging responsible and enthusiastic science.

PALCA: Let's take another call now and go to Elaine(ph) in Wilmington, North Carolina. Elaine, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ELAINE (Caller): Well, thank you. My question has to do with the relationship of synthetic organisms and the environment. And I'm wondering whether thought has been given to such things as sequestration of carbon, whether some of these organisms could eat that carbon up or there would be other uses to help clean up the environment.

PALCA: Interesting question, Elaine. Thanks for that.

Drew Endy, have you heard about any technologies that are like that at all?

Dr. ENDY: Sure. I mean, it's one of the great promises of biotechnology, to be able to take elements in the atmosphere, whether it'd be carbon or nitrogen and ameliorate or impact humans' relationship with those elemental cycles. It's very controversial if you dig down into it, right? Because many times, for example, if you take carbon sequestration, some of the best systems in the world for doing that might be natural systems, right, the marshes or the soils of the forest. And so careful attention needs to be paid if one were to try and compliment what nature is already pretty good at with engineered solution.

But, absolutely. One of the great applications of biological technologies would be to better integrate the impact of human civilizations within the natural world.

Dr. RABINOW: Keep…

PALCA: There's - sorry. Go ahead, Paul Rabinow.

Dr. RABINOW: Keep in mind that synthetic biology is a young field. Nanotechnology, which is a little bit older and has more centers and is directly involved with environmental issues, has been doing some interesting things in terms of exactly those issues. So that might be another program, but new cutting-edge science is not and should not be blind to environmental issues.

And then, secondly, there's a huge new set of centers at Berkeley, but also at other places as well, in which synthetic biology is now devoting major efforts towards creating biofuels. And the question of what that's going to do to the natural environment and what's that going to do on the geopolitics of energy and the rest is very much on the agenda. So there are exciting things going on at MIT and other places, but these are the issues we all need to be talking about before it's too late.

PALCA: Well, speaking of issues, there's a group of people who've gathered at "Second Life" on Science Friday Island. And one of them, Troy McCullen(ph) has asked the following question. Can you give an overview of what biotechnologies can and can't be patented?

So is patenting the right word to think about here or should we be thinking more like copyright or - I don't know, how do you - what's going to happen? How does ownership of these things going to work? Drew Endy, maybe you could take a stab at that?

Dr. ENDY: Well, within the current practice of biotechnology, patents are the dominant and accepted form of intellectual property and they're put to good use within certain applications. I think it's an interesting question. And the way I considered it is to map how ownership-sharing and innovation schemes changes in response to advances in technology.

And the most relevant one to consider first would be DNA synthesis technology. So DNA synthesis is a technology where you can go from raw materials derived from sugarcane and information in a computer database and print DNA. All of a sudden, you don't have to go to your freezer to get a pre-existing piece of DNA, you print it from scratch whenever you need it.

This technology, DNA synthesis, and other genetic construction technologies are getting better exponentially, which is a cliche but, you know, practically it means they're doubling in capacity every 12 to 18 months. They're getting better faster than computers are getting better.

So if you look at how things like computing and, as Paul is mentioning, the fact that we're in a global Internet-driven world, what happens when we get to the point where there are online databases of standard biological parts and devices and whenever you want to call up or program a new synthetic organism, you download these sequences off the Web, right? Now this, all of a sudden, instead of looking like a bunch of freezers where you go get your DNA, maybe it looks more like iTunes on Apple's Web site.

And all of a sudden, I think copyright becomes a very interesting thing to consider. But I don't want to overstate where this might go because, practically, the legal community is starting to think about it. It's not clear whether we should go with patenting in the future, copyright, something specific to the domain like what's been done with ship hauls(ph) and protection around that.

So the ownership frameworks going forward in biotechnology, I suspect, are going to come under tremendous amount of stress in response to the improvements and the technologies that allow the work to go forward.

PALCA: Yeah, Paul Rabinow, go ahead.

Dr. RABINOW: Keep in mind that Drew is being modest. He's the head of the BioBricks Foundation in - which has devoted the most cutting-edge thought to these issues, and he has a lot more to say about it. Let me add only that the models have say, the pharmaceutical industry in - and what's happened with AIDS drugs, I think, is not in a global world with really pressing issues of environmental concern, health concern. And also the fact that science should be a globalized good, I think, that's probably the path not to follow.

So struggling and thinking through the kinds of issues have opened access plus proprietary protection that will enable in further research without closing off large sections of humanity to the benefits both of learning and enjoying science, but also the products of science, that's the challenge. So one could say that how can we increase our capacities without increasing relations of domination and exploitation? Now that's a fancy way of saying, how can we increase the general good of this exciting and young field without just increasing the riches and wealth and health of a small group, a small part of humanity.

PALCA: Let's take another call now and go this time to Zack(ph) in Ogden, Utah.

Zack, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ZACK (Caller): Hey, thanks so much. I love SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PALCA: Sure.

ZACK: I am a devout Christian but, scientifically, I'm excited for the advances that we're making. That being said, I - my question is, at what point as we're, I guess, designing or coming up with genetic codes of genome, at what point do we draw the line and say, you know, let's let nature or God take its course and maybe we don't need to necessarily interact or interfere with the hand of God in nature or whatever way you want to look of that, you know, where do we draw that line?

PALCA: Interesting question, Zack.

Drew Endy, what do you think?

Dr. ENDY: I think one place to start is to consider that by constructing or reconstructing things that already exists, this is an approach for understanding what we already find in the natural world. And so that I personally would feel would be well within, sort of, an acceptable sphere of activity. As you go forward I don't see an absolute answer to your question, it's something that we're going to have to continue to consider as we build things and learn what it means to be constructors not creators. I think there's an important distinction in the language here. A creator, a God, you know, has unlimited power, knowledge, ability to manipulate all that we know.

Engineers, I'm an engineer, you know, I'm useful - used to wearing a hardhat to doing construction projects, right, but I can't really control what I'm doing all the time. Now, I try and make do and sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. And so I think as we start to understand the work more in the context of construction and see how it goes then, you know, we'll have to continue to have conversations around the issue you've just brought up. I, again, don't know perorally(ph) how to answer that absolutely.

Dr. RABINOW: Let me add that my chief assistant, the main person who I'm working with out here in Berkeley on our project, Gaymon Bennett, is a doctoral student in Theology and he's a member of a group out here called Theologians for Stem Cells. So the question is which God, which interpretation of religion, and there's a vast array of difference of religious opinion among the major world religions as well as indigenous religions on all of these questions, so I think the idea that there's a single religious answer or that we know if one believe there was a God we knew what God's will was, I think many people believe is the fundamental center of Hubris, not attempting to do good things in the world but claiming to know what the omnipotent and divine voice is and what's allowed and what's not allowed, because I can assure you there's absolutely no consensus about that.

PALCA: We're talking about synthetic biology and the implications of what this new world is going to bring us. We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You know, not to make light of it, but every time a new technology comes along there is a question of whether we're stepping over a line and usurping some role that God has determined for us. And I remember my dad used to joke that if God had wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us the railroad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: So there's an element to that every time, and I guess we can keep peeling back that onion.

But let's take another call now and go to Chuck(ph) in San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thank you very much. Actually, it's interesting you mention hubris and messing with creation, because I'm kind of coming at the same issue from a different direction which is to say, I think that in our current age there's a certain amount of scientific technological hubris that - I'm no Luddite…


CHUCK: …but…


CHUCK: …I think, you know, this is very exciting. But instead of thinking of messing with creation I'm wondering if you can look at the ecosystem as an extremely complex product of eons of evolution where all the pieces kind of have evolved to fit together in a certain way. I'm not saying it's static, but it is extremely complex. And if you consider the effects of introducing non-native species into an ecosystem, not necessarily something that's harmful per se, but something that has no natural predators or diseases or simply out-competes other organisms for a certain niche, I think, maybe, you can start to see what I'm concerned about.

That if you engineer a new life form it is not, you know, by definition novel and therefore just introducing it into this complex system, product of such a long evolutionary process, inevitably you're going to have unexpected consequences and they could quite easily, I think, not be desirable.

PALCA: Interesting question, Chuck, although I suppose one answer would be that most things fail. Most things don't survive very well. But maybe I should ask Drew Endy, what he makes of that question?

Dr. ENDY: Joe, I agree with your statement just now, but, you know, it doesn't make the issue any less important. We depend, absolutely, on the natural living world and its, you know, continued prosperity to the extent that we have anything to do with it, and so we certainly wouldn't want to mess that up. You know, one of the things which surprises me is somebody growing up in a world already with biotechnology that the engineering community itself is relatively immature.

And so, for example, 30 years after the invention of genetic engineering we don't have what I would recognize as the American society of genetic engineers. The reason that's funny or interesting to me is when I studied civil engineering and when I was a student, I had to take courses in professional practice and development, and I learned things like bridge designers will sign their work and put a little tag in, you know, or plaque next to the bridge. And, you know, a lot of times those cultural practices allow for things like, well, when the bridge falls down you're going to go talk to somebody about it and maybe you're not going to be a structural engineer very much longer, right?

And so how do we develop, sort of, the culture of responsibility around biotechnology as it becomes more powerful, as it becomes more distributed so that issues like the one having to do with environmental health and safety, you know, become, sort of, anticipated and the solutions get built into the practice as things go forward.

PALCA: Well, I'd like to continue this discussion, it's quite fascinating, but I'm afraid we're out of time. So I have to thank my guests, Drew Endy, you were just hearing, is an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. And we also talked with Paul Rabinow, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Thanks to both of you for being with us.

Dr. ENDY: Thank you.

Dr. RABINOW: Thank you.

When we come back, we'll have a brief that - thank you - we'll have a brief look at time and what it means to be doing a SCIENCE FRIDAY program on Friday, February 29th, that's today. Stay with us.

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