Argument: Synthetic life needs regulation, but should be allowed

Issue Report: Artificial life


John Harris. “Promise and risks from ‘life not as we know it’” Financial Times. May 26, 2010: “The dangers of making organisms that have never before existed (which already happens every day in biotech laboratories) will always be largely unknowable in advance. This is not a good enough reason to hold back if the expected benefits are significant. But it does mean we need robust regulation and licensing. The message is this: welcome the outstanding science, ensure good regulation in plenty of time and question an international intellectual property regime that can, disastrously, militate against fair access to the fruits of science.”

Andrew Maynard. “Are we ready for synthetic biology? 2020 Science. March 25th, 2009: “the current regulatory framework doesn’t even begin to touch on developments that lie outside its traditional sphere of control—including a growing “biohacking” community.

Rodemeyer’s piece is more about setting out the issues and posing questions than providing solutions. And it does this extremely well. If you want aan excellent description of what synthetic biology is all about, the regulatory framework within which it is developing, or the challenges it presents to that framework, this is the report to read. It’s clear, it’s accessible, and it’s highly readable.

But if you insist on an overarching take-home message, it would be this (and these are my words, not his):
We are on the brink of a revolution in biotechnology that will make old biotech look like the fumblings of a toddler. And while we may have got away with squeezing new tech into old regulatory bottles in the past, this approach isn’t going to work for much longer! Rather, if synthetic biology is to grow into a mature, safe and accepted technology, some regulatory rethinking will be needed.

The old bottles, it seems, will last us a little longer. But at some point they are going to burst at the seams. And what then, if we don’t have bigger, better, more flexible containers handy?”