herald

Monday 20 November 2017

Jury still out on risks and benefits of man-made organisms

It is easy to get carried away with the potential, both for good and for harm, of synthetic life.

The creation of an organism with genetic instructions written by human beings is an extraordinary achievement. What its implications will be, though, remains an open question.

Dr Venter is bullish about the potential, suggesting that by engineering genomes from scratch, scientists will be able to design microbes with all kinds of useful properties.

His team has a grant from the US National Institutes of Health to make flu vaccines and is working with energy companies to develop algae that turn carbon dioxide into biofuels.

Naturally occurring organisms, he argued, had not evolved to do these jobs efficiently. Synthetic biology will allow humans to sidestep evolution.

Dr Venter's critics play up the power of artificial life in a different way, highlighting the potential for bioterror or bioerror.

Both positive and negative hype, though, should be tempered with caution. While synthetic biology has much to offer, the approach Dr Venter has taken is not the only one.

Many scientists doubt whether building synthetic genomes from the ground up will add much to biotechnology. There are also qualms about whether it will work with more complex organisms.

Dr Venter's achievement is certainly a technical triumph. We will have to wait to see whether it is a transformational one.

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