In The Field

Power, Secrets, and Synthetic Biology

“When is secrecy justifiable?” asks Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist from Northwestern University in a hurried presentation on the ethical challenges presented by synthetic biology at the third annual meeting on the topic in Zürich, Switzerland. She characterized the main arguments that have been made for and against synthetic bio referencing everyone from Kant to Sissela Bok, and Disney to Lucas.

Zoloth delineated the battle lines between scientists who think the technology is ‘cool,’ call them enthusiasts, and academics, ethicists, and pundits who urge caution. One person urging caution, Jim Thomas of the Etc. advocacy group (who has contacted me and even posted links to his own blog on my previous posts), got his say in the panel session that followed the talk. Some fireworks ensued.

Zoloth defined the most visible battle lines nicely: Scientists are generally enthusiastic about what they’re doing. They think synthetic biology is ‘cool,’ and are usually eager to carry on. Groups like Etc, and ethicists like Zoloth urge caution. There are the theologics who urge against trying to play God, those that argue terrorists might take control of new knowledge, and those that warn against the slippery slope and sorcerer’s apprentice scenarios (enter the Dis). What Jim Thomas is warning against falls along the lines of synthetic biology proceeding apace and stepping on the little guy (the archetype for the little guy being poor farmers in Southern Africa who neither benefit from, nor welcome the encroachments of modern technology). For him, unchecked progress of synthetic biology is a power play of developed nations with the potential to quash something ‘natural’ and human. Their motives were made pretty clear by their press release calling attention to the infamous Venter patent application, about which, I’m surprised to say, still not much has been said in open session.

The synthetic biology conferences that have been held to date (there have been two previous) have made efforts to discuss societal and ethical implications, and open a dialog with the public. Thomas complained, however, that these efforts have taken an elitist approach aiming the technical language far above what the average citizen can understand. This may be true, and one of Zoloth’s proposed solutions to the ethical and safety issues of synthetic bio certainly seem to widen this divide. Zoloth offers what she calls a Jedi theory of governance (welcome to the party, Lucas) in which the deep dark secrets of synthetic biology are kept within the ken of a chosen few, a priesthood if you will of synthetic biology.

There was argument from one commenter, Wayne Materi from the National Research Council, Canada, that such secret-keeping engenders exactly the kind of rage that might turn the fruits of synthetic biology against humanity a-la bioterrorism. But Zoloth was firm when I pressed her on the point after the talk. Some secrets just need to be kept, she said, noting that she’s glad that she, for one, doesn’t know how to make an atomic bomb.

George Church of Harvard Medical School, might take a pass on the role of Obi Wan in the synthetic biology knighthood. He was less inclined to form some sort of Jedi clan on the subject. In fact, he’s promoted a full open-access model in synthetic bio, to the point that he’s invited Etc, and “other three letter groups” to come to his lab, watch what he and his lab mates do, and report it to the world (or even keep the secrets to themselves – he doesn’t even want to know or influence what they find). It’s certainly interesting to watch a nascent field address these concerns so early in its development. Parallels have been made to Asilomar for molecular biology, the Manhattan Project for nuclear weaponry, but it’s definitely a different animal. Tonight, for the first time that I’d heard it, parallels were made to stem cell biology.

Zoloth said she’s been through the stem cell wars and seen what it’s like to have moratoria and hyper regulation descend upon a field. She doesn’t want to see the same happen for synthetic biology unnecessarily. Bottom line, she quotes Sydney Brenner who instructed scientists thusly: Don’t lie, and try to make something good for humanity.

I didn’t get a chance to ask what Thomas thought of this advice. How do you think things will turn out for synthetic biologists?


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