Rachel's Democracy & Health News #835  [Printer-friendly version]
December 29, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: In their constant search for the "next big
thing" to drive economic growth, investors are now banking on a new
field of science called "synthetic biology." The aim is to create
entirely new forms of life, with little thought for consequences.
This is genetic engineering on steroids, but the U.S. government
warns that it will bring "a darker bioweapons future."]

By Peter Montague

In this series, we are summarizing what seem to us the top 10
developments of 2005.

Last week we described the rush to commercialize nanotechnology
without any realistic hope of regulating it. See Rachel's #834. This
week we describe genetic engineering on steroids -- a new field called
"synthetic biology" in which scientists are setting out to create new
forms of life that have never existed before.

In "genetic engineering," natural genes from one species are inserted
by force into a different species, hoping to transfer the properties
or characteristics of one species into another. Trout can live in cold
water, so maybe a trout gene blasted into a tomato will help tomatoes
withstand cold weather. The limitation on this system is the
characteristics that nature has built into the genes of species.

Now scientists have overcome that limitation. They are learning to
develop entirely new species, new forms of life. Awareness of this new
scientific specialty -- called "synthetic biology" -- began to appear
in the press in 2005.

The construction of living things from raw chemicals was first
demonstrated in 2002 when scientists created a polio virus from
scratch. They found the polio virus genome on the internet, and
within 2 years had created a virus from raw chemicals. The synthetic
virus could reproduce and, when injected into mice, paralyzed them
just as a natural polio virus would do. They said they chose the polio
virus to demonstrate what a bioterrorist could accomplish.

"It is a little sobering to see that folks in the chemistry laboratory
can basically create a virus from scratch," James LeDuc of the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said at the

A year later, in 2003 Craig Venter and colleagues at the Institute for
Biological Energy Alternatives in Rockville, Md., took only 3 weeks
to create a virus from scratch.

Later that same year the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) published a
short paper called "The Darker Bioweapons Future," reporting the
conclusions of a panel of life science experts convened by the
National Academy of Sciences. The CIA paper said, in part, "The
effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse
than any disease known to man." And the CIA said, "The same science
that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the
world's most frightening weapons." The CIA offered one example: "For
example, one panelist cited the possibility of a stealth virus attack
that could cripple a large portion of people in their forties with
severe arthritis, concealing its hostile origin and leaving a country
with massive health and economic problems."

Nature magazine -- England's most prestigious science journal --
said in 2004 that synthetic biology "carries potential dangers that
could eclipse the concerns already raised about genetic engineering
and nanotechnology."

Last month, the British journal New Scientist said in an editorial,
"Let us hope that tomorrow's terrorists don't include people with PhDs
in molecular genetics." The editorial went on to explain why the
technology cannot regulated: "The underlying technology has already
proliferated worldwide, and some gene-synthesis companies that are
ostensibly based in the west are thought to manufacture their DNA in
China and other countries in the far east where skilled labour is

The editorial was written in response to an investigation conducted by
the editors of New Scientist. They wondered if they could special-
order DNA over the internet and have it shipped to them by mail (which
the Brits call "post," not mail). Their report is titled, "The
bioweapon is in the post," and they concluded that it would be
doable, and that commerce in such things would be difficult -- or
impossible -- to control. "But with gene synthesis firms springing up
all over the world, and the underlying technology becoming cheaper and
more widely available, it is unclear whether regulations enacted in
any one country will be enough."

"It's going to be virtually impossible to control," predicts David
Magnus of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

The New Scientist editorial ends by saying, "If there ever was a case
for scientists around the world to engage in sensible self-regulation
before a nightmare becomes reality, this is it."

Unfortunately, scientists are ill-equipped by their training to
grapple with the ethical and moral dimensions of their work.
Scientists have no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath -- "First do no
harm" -- that guides the behavior of physicians. The Hippocratic oath
counsels restraint, humility, and caution. In science, on the other
hand, wherever your curiosity takes you is the right place to go, even
if it takes you into "a darker bioweapons future."

Small wonder that so many people have lost faith in science,
scientific progress, and the promise of America. As the editors of
Nature said in 2004, "Controversies over genetically engineered crops
and embryo research are leading people to question how carefully
scientists consider the possible consequences of their work before
barreling ahead. This is no small concern for science, as it has
already led to restrictions."

But of course it isn't just scientists who are responsible for
speeding the deployment of ill-considered technologies onto the world
market. The underlying engine for all this reckless behavior is an
economic system that requires economic growth year after year.

Our society has grown dependent upon economic growth for achieving
"liberty and justice for all." You say your slice of the pie is
unacceptably small and you're having to sleep under a bridge? Don't
worry -- economic growth will make the whole pie larger, so your tiny
slice will grow too. Thus domestic tranquility, justice, fairness, and
fulfilling the promise of America are all dependent upon economic
growth. We don't have any other widely-approved way to distribute the
benefits of the economy, except through economic growth. We have
forgotten the alternative, which is sharing.

But decade after decade since 1970, economic growth rates have been
stagnant or declining, not just in the U.S. but throughout the
"developed" world.

Slow growth derives from at least two sources -- productive capacity
exceeds consumer demand and we have a glut of capital, so it is
getting harder to find good investments.

These two features of the modern economy force investors to constantly
search for "the next big thing" -- in hopes of returning to historical
rates of return on investment. As a consequence, corporations (which
have limited liability, by law) engage in reckless behavior --
including behavior that may threaten the well being of everyone. They
create new biotech crops and deploy them across the nation's
agricultural landscape before thorough tests have been completed. They
put nano particles into baby lotion before they have any idea whether
the nano particles can penetrate a baby's skin, and before they have
asked where those nano particle will go after they are thrown out with
the bath water.

So now we have synthetic biology -- the "next big thing" -- genetic
engineering on steroids -- the manufacture of living organisms unlike
any that have appeared on earth before. Investors are lining up to
support new firms that are willing to sell the building blocks of new
forms of life to anyone who can come up with a few hundred thousand
dollars. This may in fact produce the next big thing, but it may not
be quite the thing investors are hoping for.

Until we devise a steady-state economy that does not require perpetual
growth, investors will keep us on this awful "next big thing" merry-
go-round, our quality of life continually threatened anew by the ill-
considered products and unanticipated by-products of feral science.