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CHE.496: Biological Systems Design Seminar

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Social implications

Kevin Hershey's Response

  • The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology
    • The purpose of the article by Tucker and Zilinskas is to provide information regarding the potential rewards and dangers of this emerging field. The first part of the paper introduces synthetic biology, an issue already covered in this course. After the introduction, they bring up three potential risks. They are 1) organisms escape laboratory and proliferate, 2) after being deliberately released in environment, the organism may have unwanted dangerous side effects, and 3) terrorist organizations may use the organisms for their own purpose. With these three risks are not new to the field of genetic engineering. In fact, there are very tight laws on the selling of engineered animals, because people are already aware of the risk to an extent. However, even though these are not new issues, they are still important to consider and examine when performing synthetic biology research. This paper has several solutions to this problem, they are screening of oligonucleotide sequences (for dangers such as smallpox DNA), ecological modeling (so the organisms effect on nature can be better understood), oversight of research (for more control so dangerous research can be halted), and public outreach and education (to educate the public and raise awareness). They finish by saying that synthetic biology should take a lesson from Asilomar in 1975, where recombinant DNA has been used for, in general, good since its discovery.
  • DNA Synthesis and Biological Securtiy
    • This brief article discusses some of the potential solutions to the problems of a new technology, DNA synthesis. The paper points out that with DNA synthesis becoming easier and easier to do, there needs to be some intervention so people do not create dangerous organisms, such as the black plague, 1918 flu, or smallpox. They suggest government and legal oversight, and several solutions. The best system seems like using computer programs to screen dangerous sequences. This allows a range of people to use this new technology, while at the same time keeping people safe. It is a very useful article to consider before performing research in this new field.
  • KPHershey 14:23, 5 February 2008 (CST)

Dan Tarjan's Response

  • The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology
    • The article in the New Atlantic is a verbose overview of synbio with several sections focusing on potential risks. They talk about the different avenues in which the emerging field could create risks and potential methods for mitigating those risks. With more than half the article dedicated to the hazard-aspect the article leans towards alarmism, although it is more subdued than other more 'mainstream' articles on the topic.
  • DNA synthesis and biological security
    • This article proposes a regulatory framework to oversee the field of synbio. It is more detailed than the proposals made in the New Atlantic. Essentially DNA synthesis companies will have a computer check orders for sequences which might be harmful, and the rest is just bureaucracy. Considering that DNA synthesis may well move from these companies down to a table-top device in the future this approach towards regulation will break down. No doubt regulators will require all such machines to have firmware that does the sequence checking locally, but like with any other device these restrictions will be circumvented by anyone with actual malicious intent.
  • Daniel R Tarjan 13:49, 6 February 2008 (CST)

George Washington's Response

  • The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology
    • Whenever a nascent field emerges, it is vital to make every effort possible to ensure the research is not used for a malicious intent. Thus, this article discusses the inherent risks in the development of the field of synthetic biology and what lessons we can learn from history that will help in developing policy controlling its study. It mentions the steps scientists took in the 70s to prevent the intentional or accidental release of dangerous recombinant DNA into the environment and society. Some of the initiatives, in hindsight, turned out to be overly cautious, but the lack of *any* reported accidental release testifies to the strength of the enforced policy. I doubt we will deal with many of these issues in our own project, although it's important to remember context for anything we design. It will be a while before scientists are even capable of synthesizing truly new pathogens and disseminating them as would be required for an attack, so it seems that we do not need to worry, for a while at least.
  • DNA synthesis and biological security
    • In this article, its authors describe their ideas for a way to prevent DNA from being obtained for malicious use through several levels of oversight. They propose an international system wherein various governments would regulate local and national law enforcement mechanisms such that neither could an individual obtain malicious DNA sequences without being identified and prosecuted nor could DNA synthesis companies manufacture without first screening for known pathogens and toxins. By enforcing oversight at every level of the process, world governments can forestall if not prevent the acquisition by malicious entities of biological weaponry without too greatly hindering the ability of academics and companies to expand the frontier of genetic research. This seems to have little relevance to our project, other than a commitment we must make not to reconstruct polio for release into the general populace. I doubt we'll be working with anything particularly hazardous.
  • George Washington 16:34, 6 February 2008 (CST)

George McArthur's Response

  • The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology
    • This is a great overview of synthetic biology and, although it may be somewhat redundant, it makes a good point of the potential societal implications of synthetic biology technology. The authors break the field down into four distinct subfields: genome design and construction, applied protein design, natural product synthesis, and the creation of standardized biological parts and circuits. The first two subfields are out the scope of the team's resources. It should be obvious that the team will be working primarily in the area of standardizing biological parts since the iGEM competition is based on a functional library of parts, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. In addition, it is possible to focus on natural product synthesis. The 2007 VGEM Team worked on the microbial production of butanol using standardized parts (i.e., enzyme-coding genes). Whatever the research is, there are always risks involved. Possible risks that are highlighted in the paper are accidental release, open environment testing, and deliberate misuse. VGEM Team members use synthetic biology constructively to benefit our world. It is beyond the team to test its work in the environment. Therefore, the primary concern we should have it accidental release. There are laboratory guidelines that keep us from accidentally releasing a synthetic or otherwise genetically modified organism into the environment.
  • DNA synthesis and biological security
    • This article was written by a diverse team ranging from academic synthetic biologists to the FBI. Regarding the previous article, there are definite risks involved with synthetic biology research and development. The risk of deliberate misuse (e.g., bioterrorism) is a very real possibility. These authors indicate that biological security can be ensured by regulating DNA synthesis, which is foundational to synthetic biology. In this way, orders of suspicious nucleotide sequences can be flagged down and the people who order them can be tagged and watched by some centralized agency. Even if someone is ordering a lot of parts from different companies they can still be tagged. The authors suggest that a screening process should be established at various levels including governmental, local, and industrial in addition to working with the International Consortium for Polynucleotide Synthesis, which can serve as the central agency by interfacing all of these. Individuals who place DNA synthesis orders would be required to identify themselves and their affiliations. This is similar to registering for a firearm and should not be considered an infringement on privacy in my opinion. Most DNA synthesis companies are doing this already and it will be likely that the 2008 VGEM Team will have to register with the synthesis company chosen to synthesize your DNA of interest.

GMcArthurIV 16:42, 6 February 2008 (CST)

Patrick Gildea's Response

  • DNA synthesis and biological security
    • This article proposes a security framework that will ensure that research in synthetic biology and DNA synthesis to prevent harm. I honestly don’t like their plan because it is too centralized around the government and I generally have very low opinions of our government. I think to suggest that the government have control over or rather as the article mentions “local oversight” is not a good idea. As the Bush government has repeatedly demonstrated, government policy and scientific research can go like oil and water; I can already see some of the pow-wows the government would have over some areas of extreme synthetic biology that George mentioned about in the last meeting. For example, engineering completely different organisms that never existed on earth and new nucleotides outside of the 4 used in DNA to name a few. I think the main responsibility should lie with the DNA synthesis companies and with the researchers who know and understand the technology best who can best figure out ways of preventing abuse.
  • The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology
    • This article gives an over-view of the filed of synthetic biology, giving a picture of what research is being done – namely protein design, natural product synthesis, the registry for biobricks. However, the article goes into depth about the dangers this field of research presents – perhaps a bit too vociferously. The article mentions the risk of engineered microorganisms escaping and causing harm to the environment – this is ludicrous because articles we have already read illustrate the versatility of DNA – we can code the genome of whatever organism such that it would not survive outside the outside confines of a lab or have the ability to interface or find a niche in the local environment. Furthermore, terrorists are more likely to use ammonium nitrate as a tool of destruction, not a tub of nucleotides. To be honest, this article seems sensationalist. I went ahead and did some background research on the authors of the article. Jonathan Tucker is a pretty smart guy with a poli-sci ph’d from MIT. However, he is a government bureaucrat who was the “senior policy analyst for the Presidential Advisory Committee” for the “Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses” in 1995. While he may be smart, I think he is overestimating the dangers of this field. As for the other guy, Raymond Zilinskas, he too has impressive educational background; grad studies at USC. However, he has worked predominantly in poli-sci and wrote many books on biological weapons, etc. Both authors are in the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program – some government agency that “researches the proliferation of chemical (including toxin) and biological weapons and develops strategies for halting and reversing their spread”. So, I doubt the integrity of this article due to the author’s background. I would take this paper more seriously if this came from an academic like Drew Endy or Tom Knight, etc. who know this field better and can outline the “true” risks.

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