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  • Writer's pictureSwaha Chakraborty

Is The Stigma Surrounding Synthetic Biology Fair?

The idea of altering life itself tends to spark a sense of fear. If there is one thing Mary Shelly and Micheal Criton have taught us, it is the extent of human incompetence in the face of nature. Imitating life is almost certain to result in disaster (or a monster), and scientists need to be aware of the limits of their capabilities. The fear these dystopian authors have instilled in their audiences continues to taint the public’s view on the emerging field of synthetic biology, yet very few truly understand what the field entails. It begs the question: is the stigma surrounding genome engineering fair?

I myself fall into the awkward middle ground between the two sides of this argument. On one hand, the part of me that loves biology cannot help but find beauty in the process of learning and writing nature’s code. Yet, the other part of me, the part that enjoys ethics and policy debates, can’t help but feel hesitant. For there is no mistake that is as fatal as underestimating nature’s power. Just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. However, I also believe that the environmental, health, and agricultural benefits gene editing promises society is far too great to simply ignore.

When discussing policy regarding gene editing, we need to look at its possible effects on our society. Without proper regulations, synthetic biology technology could easily be abused. Once gene technology becomes accessible to the average person, the consequences would be life-altering. Like lines of code, once invented, harmful DNA sequences can be synthesized by anyone. What could have been engineered specifically for biological warfare, for example, could then be employed by an individual for their own self-benefit. There are data leaks in even the most secure of companies. A data leak at a synbio company could have an effect on the entire human population.

Furthermore, there is the moral question. At what point are we taking on the role of nature? Do we have a right drastically alter these natural processes? It is safe to say that the field has emerged at such a fast rate, that it is impossible for us to truly understand the long-term effects. How can we be certain that genetically modified organisms would not have a detrimental impact on ecosystems once released into the wild?

But is it fair to turn away from biotechnology altogether? Absolutely not. The field of synthetic biology promises for such a variety of issues on our planet- everything from cultivating disease-resistant crops to engineering fuels - that it would seem foolish not to reap its rewards. However, in order to maintain moral and safety standards when dealing with this technology, we need to have policies and regulations in place to maintain that safe environment. Government transparency regarding genetic engineering and public engagement regarding policy decisions is crucial to ensure the safe integration of biotechnology and synthetic biology into our society.

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