Members of the public showed clear concern over the safety implications of synthetic biology at last week’s CafÃ© Scientifique forum as Vincent Martin, Concordia associate biology professor, defended his research project based in that field.
Synthetic biology involves genetically engineering and synthesizing biological components to create new systems or reproduce and modify the structures of existing ones, and the audience at last Wednesday’s event seemed to be very aware of the negative potential of the emerging science. They raised questions about what could occur if regulations were developed to allow these new technologies to prosper.
“You’re essentially talking about life as a commodity,” said science enthusiast Ben Goloff. “Creating bacteria is one thing, but when you get to the point where you can create multicellular organisms that you can have a conversation with, that’s when issues start to arise. You’re essentially playing god.”
There was a general consensus amongst the crowd who seemed to have similar concerns about the unknown power synthetic biology technologies could possess.
“To hell with the laws,” audience member Bob Forstien said to the panel, “You are fantastically ignorant to the impact it could have [on society]. You just do not know.”
For the last year, Martin and his team have been attempting to genetically engineer the growth of morphine in yeast with hopes of producing a cheaper alternative for its production.
“Progress is fairly good,” Martin said. “I was hoping for more, but so far it’s good.”
Over 70 people attended the discussion forum at the Irish Embassy pub last week, including general science enthusiasts, university students, staff, alumni and industry representatives.
They took advantage of CafÃ© Scientifique’s informal, open discussion and posed their questions and concerns about synthetic biology to the panel of experts.
On the panel, Martin was joined by Canada Research Chair in Plant Biotechnology Peter Facchini from University of Calgary and associate law professor Richard Gold from McGill University.
Also present in the audience were representatives from GÃ©nome QuÃ©bec, who fund Martin’s research. They took the opportunity to direct questions to the panel about the positive effects synthetic biology technologies might offer, including the potential for pharmaceutical production, application of biofuels and environmental remediation.
But despite the positive possibilities, even the scientists admitted that repercussions of developing these technologies could have negative consequences.
“If it gets into the wrong hands or goes in the wrong direction, you could do some crazy things. You could synthesize anything,” said professor Martin. “That is where the risks lie.”