Monday, December 17, 2007

as a maestro might compose a musical score

Well, well, well...., seems like the WaPo finally got around to mentioning it. Interestingly, they focused a significant chunk on control and governance. Too bad that genie's out of the bottle, never to be put back into sequestration again.
"Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet," concluded a recent report by the Ottawa-based ETC Group, one of dozens of advocacy groups that want a ban on releasing synthetic organisms pending wider societal debate and regulation.

At the core of synthetic biology's new ascendance are high-speed DNA synthesizers that can produce very long strands of genetic material from basic chemical building blocks: sugars, nitrogen-based compounds and phosphates.

Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on a computer just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then use a synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual DNA.

"The danger is not just bio-terror but bio-error," the report says.
Many scientists say the threat has been overblown. Venter notes that his synthetic genomes are spiked with special genes that make the microbes dependent on a rare nutrient not available in nature. And Pierce, of DuPont, says the company's bugs are too spoiled to survive outdoors.

"They are designed to grow in a cosseted environment with very high food levels," Pierce said. "You throw this guy out on the ground, he just can't compete. He's toast."

"We've heard that before," said Jim Thomas, ETC Group's program manager, noting that genes engineered into crops have often found their way into other plants despite assurances to the contrary. "The fact is, you can build viruses, and soon bacteria, from downloaded instructions on the Internet," Thomas said. "Where's the governance and oversight?"