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The Pros and Cons of Synthetic Biology

DNA molecule/ Photo By CI Photos via Shutterstock

 

So-called synbio is the wave of the future if you ask anyone whose career has landed him or her in a biotech space in this generation. Scientists in biotech basically understand that synthetic biology is what’s leading progress right now, and one researcher known well for his status and achievement in the field thus far, James Mitchell Crow, says that synthetic biologists all over the world are now constructing artificially organic organisms that are able to meet our material needs in more environmentally protective ways. If you’re still confused about how important synthetic biology is or even what it is, it is inclusive of but hardly exclusive to epigenetics, which involves the invention and implementation of CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing tool.

Synbio goes a lot further than epigenetics, though. Researchers today have artificial jellyfish swimming around in search of toxins that they can destroy on our behalf. These toxins, mind you, came from fuels that man extrapolated from large amounts of yeast. Researchers are programming viruses to defend human beings against cancers now, too, and they’re developing technological innovations like gadgets that can heal themselves the way living organisms do. These and many other things are what synbio boils down to --- the perspective that sees life as one giant machine whose design can be modified to execute favorable tasks relative to the global energy crisis, the global food shortage, world health problems, and environmental issues.

 

research team on a laboratory/ Photo By ProStockStudio via Shutterstock

 

Scientists basically put DNA sequences in order using online software, and the pieces they need to accomplish this are indexed according to their standardized, biological purposes and specifications. As such, synbio is fast becoming the driving force behind increased intersectionality in science these days because it’s a field run by a very pervasively cooperative culture among synthetic biologists sharing tools and data in a manner similar to the main thrust of the open-source movement. Craig Venter is pioneering the field as, back in 2010, he and his team of researchers invented the first synthetic life form in history, replicating Mycoplasma mycoides, which are a cattle bacterium.

The DNA of Mycoplasma mycoides was input into software and collected physically in a test tube. The researchers then put it in a different bacterium’s emptied shell. They watermarked their names in the DNA code itself, too, including two quotes. They quoted James Joyce, writing, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” They also quoted frontrunning quantum physicist, Richard Feynman, saying, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” Venter’s career has seen many such first-in-kind achievements over the years, too. For instance, he’s perhaps best known as one of the original sequencers of the human genome, mapping its three billion letters back in 2001 to complete the DNA code. Six years after that, he was the first human being whose personal genome was sequenced.

Now, though, there are other concerns for the rapid growth of the synthetic biology field and its multiple sectors. There are all sorts of possible outcomes, but as of right now, it appears that the U.S. is most hell-bent on ensuring that no prospective use of synthetic biology goes untapped or unstudied. For this purpose, a lot of research is currently being conducted to determine whether or not there are reasonable military applications for synbio, and many researchers have concluded as of late that the potential applications are multitudinous.

DARPA, the US Armed Forces’ research wing, always has four primary strategic investments it intends to make, and one of them is to fulfill the objective of harnessing biology and technology. This is increasingly critical as other governments experiment with new forms of subterfuge and warfare that were foreign to the world even just fifteen years ago. This is the age of hybrid warfare after all, which military experts understand as being a way of using all kinds of different methods to bring a target government under submission in some way. Russia has demonstrated this time and again with Georgia in 2008 and now Ukraine since 2013.

Hybrid warfare involves an amalgam of economic, military and cyber efforts to subdue another country or bring about the desired outcome. For example, Country A trades peas for Country B’s carrots, and Country C encourages Country B to enter the LMNOP Trade Agreement, which would provide new pea sources. Country A might levy sanctions against Country B in certain circumstances to hurt Country B’s carrot industry, but they might also hack into Country B’s Carrot Oversight Administration or launch military strikes on carrot vendors, farmers or equally integral people. To engage in the hybrid warfare of today is to use all these things and then some in tandem. That being said, DARPA is looking to make synbio the next addition to hybrid warfare strategies, though no country has yet been known weaponize synbio thus far.

“It is possible to imagine an almost limitless number of potential malevolent uses for synthetic biology,” according to the National Academy of Sciences Committee, which is funded by the US Department of Defense. The acting assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense, Arthur Hopkins, says that the US is obviously concerned that enemies might already be implementing these new innovations, so they’re investing in defensive capabilities. “The same tools of synthetic biology that we’re concerned about as being capable of being used against us, we are also using in the laboratories to help develop countermeasures,” Hopkins says.

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