Synthetic Biologists: Do They Need a License?
A recent article that appeared in the New York Times about DIY biology and biohacking, has sparked controversy and raises questions about biosecurity, and the regulation of synthetic biology.
The article, written by Emily Baumgaertner, and entitled ‘As D.I.Y Gene Editing Gains Popularity, ‘Someone Is Going to Get Hurt’ already pushes the boundaries due to its sensationalism. Through the combination of personal stories and practical incidents, the story maintains a negative tone, essentially portraying DIY biology as risky towards both the practitioners and society, explained Kostas Vavitsas, in PLOS Blogs.
Naturally, the advances in gene editing technology and drop in cost has made it possible for individuals to perform more sophisticated molecular biology experiments in private spaces. Like with anything, this hobby appeals to a lot of people and has been branded as a way to democratise genetic engineering.
However, a few recent stunts have led to some people attempting to self-edit to increase muscle content or gene-edit to reduce HIV virus content, about some of the hazards of individuals with gene-editing capabilities. But, a more dangerous scenario would involve the intentional or unintentional creation of or modification of human pathogens. Professor George Church was quoted in the article, warning that it is straightforward to enhance pathogens, and he mentions that “anyone who does synthetic biology should be under surveillance, and anyone who does it without a license should be suspect.”
Vavitsas continued to explain that the regulations that govern synthetic biology are not designed for synthetic biology, and are therefore inadequate to regulate newer gene editing applications. The current framework very much focuses on genetically modified products on not on the procedures to make them. Combined with this, there are different laws in Europe, US, and other countries, laws that mostly reflect the attitudes towards GMOs. Therefore, regulation is the first step towards the responsible use of synthetic biology and biohacking; hobbyists should be aware of what is legal and safe to do and law enforcement should know what to keep watch for.
An extreme, yet easy option to implement would be to completely ban genetic modifications outside designated labs. But, treating all genetic engineering the same, without differentiating between potentially dangerous and proven-to-be safe experimentation is not optimal.
When thinking about all of this, it is important to remember that genetic engineering is not something that “any idiot can do,” despite what the media says. Being able to carry out simple experiments in bacteria can be tricky, and even dong more elaborate and extensive modifications for anyone without years of experience and high-level training is even harder. Therefore, the creation and release of pathogens by ill-wishing individuals is not a considerable threat right now. Of course, this may well change, but as knowledge and understanding of biological systems increase, so will our ability to counter potential biothreats more effectively. In this instant, crime prevention should also be informed and be alert for different outcomes, and that can be achieved by adequate training and effective risk assessment.
That being said though, Vavitsas warns that the risk of dual use of synbio does remain. Synthetic biologists are aware of them and include ethical and societal considerations in their research. DIY biology has its role in synthetic biology, it reflects the culture of openness and transparency in the field, a feature that actually increases safety by including and addressing public concerns. It should be clear which experiments cross the line, including that of human experimentation or work with human pathogens, fear and unnecessary burden can only backfire and hinder the advancement of biotechnology. With that in mind, Vavitsas concludes that biohackers don’t need a license, but instead need to be encouraged and allowed to cultivate transparency and a sense of responsibility to their communities. And right now, they are doing a very impressive job.