Saturday, January 21, 2012

Synthetic Biology

It was another Horizon programme on BBC that recently set me thinking.

It was on the new field of "Synthetic Biology" where very dramatic changes are likely to take place in a short period of time.

We are already well used to the notion of computer programming. However this is going a big step further in that direct intervention with life forms can now take place through genetic engineering.

So already one can through the Internet purchase bio bricks and then seek to assemble the in a manner that never existed before in the natural world. So genetic advances that took many millions of years to evolve can now - apparently - be reprogrammed in an instant with potentially devastating consequences.

Now the initial phase of this engineering seems admirable enough!

For example we were introduced to three revolutionary new goats which are genetically part spider. Apparently a particular type of spider naturally produces a very strong type of silk thread which has all sorts of possible commercial applications. However with reliance on natural production the amount of thread produced would be minimal. However by genetically combining the spider with the goats, such silk can now be produced in much greater quantities (when extracted as an additional protein from the goats' milk).

We also saw another example whereby brewers' yeast, instead of producing alcohol can be now genetically modified so as to produce diesel oil. So with the likely prospect of growing shortages in natural oil in the future one can readily appreciate the commercial possibilities of this new development.

Other potential uses again seemed in principle of admirable intent. For example the prospect of using genetic engineering to modify pathological body cells such as cancer would seem very welcome.

However what would worry me greatly here is the issue of control. When people are free to buy DNA parts from the Internet and experiment in creating life forms (that may never have existed before) it is potentially very worrying. Also when amateur clubs have already been set up in parts of the US with the intention of doing likewise one wonders where this will go.

Also while at present the main emphasis is on "lower" life forms, can this situation last? Given the pace of these new developments it may not be long till science fiction truly becomes a reality and all sorts of new creatures can be created in the lab. And then what happens if these then escape or are let loose with the capacity to multiply (perhaps at dramatically fast rates).

I even raised myself in "Brave New World" that it may be eventually possible to create intelligent life forms with the capacity to evolve much more rapidly than humans. This would indeed raise startling new practical and ethical problems.

In a best case scenario the possibilities opened up by this new life technology could be used greatly to benefit rather than hinder mankind.

However evil will always remain so it is only probable that the same technology could be carelessly used without adequate knowledge of the consequences or even deliberately designed as a of form of terror against one's enemies.

At present we seem to be still largely in control of this new life technology. However sooner than we realise the fruits of such technology could threaten to control mankind in an altogether unexpected manner.

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