SynBio

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The United States National Science Foundation has a list of all of the grants awarded to research in synthetic biology, as well as descriptions of the projects, here (8). While it is true that several agricultural corporations dedicate resources to modifying crop genes, their scope does not include work that is being done in areas such as medicine and purely academic pursuits.



CLAIM: Behavior of GMOs can not be predicted outside of the laboratory.

CLAIM: Any contamination with GMOs makes organic food non-organic.

Genetically Modified Organisms

CLAIM: Genes in GMOs could modify people.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have always been a flashpoint in the public discussion of Synthetic Biology. Particularly since this element of SynBio affects consumers, GMOs must be covered by our claims.

CLAIM: All research on GMOs has been funded by massive agricultural corporations.

That depends on what kind of contamination occurs. Most organic regulations explicitly exclude GMOs themselves. Therefore, if wheat that had a gene inserted that gave the plant resistance to a pesticide was mixed with organic wheat to make flour then bread, the bread would be non-organic.

    Plant and animal genes cannot ‘jump’ organism on contact though. If a crate of modified oranges sat next to a crate of organic strawberries on the shelf of a warehouse, no genetic material would transfer, and the strawberries would still be organic.



CLAIM: GMOs are too new for us to know if they are dangerous.

Here is a Google Scholar search on the keywords “synthetic biology safety.” As with any new technology, scientists spend a lot of time looking into every implication of the technology. This paper points out some things that have been looked into, and this one has a set of recommended guidelines to improve the safety of synthetic biology. Some of the listed guidelines, such as affirmations of ethics and endorsements of security and safety, are common practice at universities and institutions that participate in synthetic biology research (6,7).

    In terms of the relative youth of the field, humans have been selecting favorable traits in plants and animals for millennia. While this more traditional form of artificial selection has clearly been a great benefit to humans and the species that were domesticated, it is different from synthetic biology itself. Random mutations in DNA have resulted in the entirety of evolution, and synthetic organisms are not immune to that. That being said, a glowing strain E. coli will not evolve into fish within the next few years. Close observation and regulation will prevent that from ever happening.



Basic biology prevents that. Humans’ DNA is protected inside of two layers of membranes that protect it from things like viruses and natural radiation; DNA itself won’t slip through. Cells will not allow for the DNA that it uses to mix with foreign DNA.    Despite evidence that genes from food may enter the human bloodstream, DNA from food that a human has eaten breaks down into unusable sub-parts before it even leaves the digestive tract (9). This is the same process that happens for all DNA that humans may ingest, even if it is as natural as it comes. Digested DNA is too destroyed to code for anything, or to make a person do anything he/she already isn’t doing (9).


To some degree, this claim is true (10). Even the simplest organism has parts that are not fully understood, and altering its functions can sometimes lead to unexpected results. This is why the behavior of each synthetic organism is tested very carefully in a lab before (if) it is ever brought out. It should be noted that even before editing genomes, humans had a history of introducing new species to the environment and seeing devastating effects. On the flip side, sometimes species are introduced with great success.  

    To prevent ecological or other types of disasters from introduced synthetic species, some synthetic biologists are working on a very specialized “DNA cutter” that would cut apart the DNA in their synthetic organism, but leave all other species unharmed. “Kill switches” in synthetic biology is an expanding field that’s guaranteed to innovate new ways to prevent synthetic organisms from acting unexpectedly.