This is a powerful technology that can harm as well as benefit the human race

Synthetic biology could be used to create lethal strains of microbes or to 'weaponise' viruses

Share
Related Topics

Synthetic biology has become the vogue term for many established fields of scientific research and development, such as molecular biology and biotechnology.

It has also become a hot subject within government because of the immense potential for creating wealth and jobs by generating the sort of highly skilled, knowledge economy that ministers bang on about.

The fact of the matter is that nature does many things rather well, such as converting sunlight into chemical energy, and if we can learn from biology then we might be able to make better and safer things more cheaply and efficiently without destroying the planet.

Humans have been using yeast for centuries in baking and brewing and so it comes as little surprise that scientists are focusing on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to give the fungus its full name, as the model for constructing a complete set of artificial chromosomes.

Yeast is one of the simplest “eukaryotes” (organisms with chromosomes) and was the first such microbe to have its genome fully sequenced.

By making synthetic yeast cells with completely man-made chromosomes, scientists hope to answer some pretty fundamental questions about life, as well as hopefully designing a new kind of industrial platform for novel processes or products.

Craig Venter, the maverick American scientist who helped  to decode the human genome more than a decade ago, has also turned his formidable talents to synthetic biology.

Indeed, in 2008 Dr Venter announced the creation of the first synthetic life-form, a “prokaryote” bacterium with a single, synthetic chromosome painstakingly made in the laboratory. Dr Venter sees synthetic biology as the way to solve many of the biggest problems of the 21st century, such as how to feed an exploding population, expected to reach 10 billion within the next few decades, and how to clean up a planet badly damaged from human exploitation.

But even he is concerned about the ethical dimension to creating new kinds of life-forms, even if they are designed to do seemingly benign things like clearing up polluted water or detoxifying poisoned soil.

Synthetic biology is a powerful technology and we should be prepared for unanticipated surprises. It is also a technology that could easily be misused, for instance to create more lethal strains of microbes or to “weaponise” existing bacteria  or viruses.

We should be aware of the potential dangers as well as the potential benefits of synthetic biology – and plan accordingly.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A sculpture illustrating the WW1 Christmas Truce football match in Liverpool  

It's been 100 years since the Christmas Truce, but football is still changing the world

Jim Murphy and Dan Jarvis
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there