The Risks and Rewards of Synthetic Biology

In the beginning, Craig Venter 'created life' in a lab. Cue the eternal clash of science and ethics

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

Right about now, it would be great if we could release into the Gulf of Mexico a vat of bugs that did nothing but eat gobs of oil and digest it into harmless smaller bits. Meanwhile, we'd power the cleanup vessels with microbes that swallow grass clippings or seaweed and spit out fuel, so we'd no longer need to punch holes in the bottom of the Gulf in the first place.

Such is the promise of synthetic biology, which, according to the people who have tried to explain it to me, is basically a marketing term for all kinds of research in which scientists tinker with biological bits to make useful things — sort of like living Lego blocks. The latest breakthrough in the field came a few weeks ago, with news that left headline writers torn between Genesis and Frankenstein: the biopioneer Craig Venter was said to have become the first to create life in the lab. What Venter did was replace the natural genome in a cell with a slightly modified synthetic one, which then issued the orders by which the cell reproduced — and brought science a little further into the realm of science fiction.

The gift of man-made life — biofuels made of algae, tumor-seeking microbial missiles — comes wrapped in a risk: What if the oil-eating bug mutates, as the horror-movie version inevitably does, and starts eating other things — like us? It's perhaps not surprising that when bioethicists describe synthetic biology, they sound like the characters in Jurassic Park. "When dealing with biological entities," notes Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics organization, "life has a tendency to find a way."

Accidents at power plants are bad enough. But a leak from a bioreactor could be worse, since bacteria can learn new tricks when you're not looking. Microbes excel at exchanging DNA, Murray notes — "like microbial French kissing." That bug we introduce into the ocean to sip the spill might end up swapping DNA with other living things. "We have a ways to go," he says, "before we can really know what risks we're running if we release these organisms into the environment."

All of which confirms the need for careful oversight, but we haven't proven very good at this. The crossroads of science and politics is a dodgy place. For proof, you have only to consider that for all the furor in the past dozen years, there's still no federal law banning human cloning; there's only, so far, scientific restraint. In 2001, President George W. Bush was condemned for politicizing science with his decision to limit federal funding for stem-cell research; in 2009 President Obama was praised for reversing it, even though his decision was arguably just as political. You can object to Bush's stem-cell decision because you believe embryos have no moral standing, or to Obama's decision because you think they do. But neither President should be attacked for "interfering with science," as though research — especially publicly funded research — should be immune from regulation. The left may have faith in the findings of think tanks, the right in the freedom of markets, but on this one, I want a more inclusive, expansive debate. Without public oversight, we are certain to wake up one day to news of some private breakthrough that rattles our bones: a human-animal hybrid, a cloned child, a fetus grown solely to harvest its parts.

As laboratories incubate new blends of man and machine — creatures whose creators used a keyboard — it seems mad to say that philosophy should not intervene. And indeed, when the news about Venter broke, Obama called on his bioethics commission to "undertake, as its first order of business, a study of the implications of this scientific milestone," including an assessment of "any potential health, security or other risks."

The path of progress cuts through the four-way intersection of the moral, medical, religious and political — and whichever way you turn, you are likely to run over someone's deeply held beliefs. Venter's bombshell revived the oldest of ethical debates, over whether scientists were playing God or proving he does not exist because someone re-enacted Genesis in suburban Maryland. Others dismiss the worry on the grounds that creating new forms of life is not the same as creating life. One doctor friend of mine suggested that "they haven't created life in any sense of the word, other than a person playing a cassette has invented the tape recorder."

People are bound to disagree about when scientists are crossing some moral Rubicon. That is all the more reason to debate, in public and in advance, where those boundaries lie — rather than doing so after the fact, when researchers are celebrating some technical triumph and the rest of us are wondering what price we will pay for it.