Synthetic biology raises playing God fears

Nitin Sethi, TNN Oct 19, 2012, 02.08AM IST

HYDERABAD: Is it safe to let humans play God and create new organisms – animals and plants – that have never existed in Mother Nature? The ongoing UN Convention on Biodiversity here is going to address this question on Friday evening, when it decides if countries need to put their heads together to study the new field of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is a giant leap forward for genetic engineering, triggering a heated global debate. If genetic engineering attempts to refit and alter the alphabets in the DNA to tweak an existing organism, synthetic biology attempts to rewrite the entire sentence and paragraph in the DNA: it creates organisms vastly different from the original.

Synthetic biology, as the NGO, Friends of Earth, explains, “Instead of swapping genes from one species to another (as in traditional genetic engineering), scientists write entirely new genetic code on a computer, “printing” it out and then inserting it into organisms, or even trying to create life from scratch.”

Developers and scientists working in the field hope to produce a new generation of fuels, industrial chemicals and biomedical applications. Synthetic biology evokes a similar spin to nano-technology, where scientists and corporate houses took to revolution in economies and technologies in a big way, in recent times.

Akin to any new technology there are serious apprehensions about scientists coming closer to creating new and complex organisms. Playing God, as some would say, derisively.

The meet will decide if the subject should be scrutinized in detail collectively before more than 180 countries take a call how to regulate the new emerging science, if at all.

Predictably, the countries, which are driving the cutting edge work in synthetic biology, are keen that the international community refrains from imposing any great restrictions or oversight mechanism to monitor what they believe would bring more benefits and greater profits.

Almost the entire civil society and some developing countries are keen to ensure that the new science does not spread and only then its impacts on global diversity are studied on the lines genetic sciences so far.

Come Friday evening, the countries gathered here will decide on how to deploy the principle of ‘precautionary principle’ to study and monitor this brave, or risky new world of synthetic biology

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