Synthetic Biology: Biosafety and Biosecurity

Synthetic biology is that field of science in which redesigning of organisms is done for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. Basically, researchers of synthetic biology and companies around the world are harnessing the power of nature to solve the problems related to medicine, manufacturing and agriculture.

Work of synthetic biology?

The common goal of synthetic biology product is to redesign organism so that they produce a substance like medicine or fuel or gain new ability for sensing something in the environment or so.

Examples that scientists are producing through synthetic biology:

- To clean pollutants from water, soil and air, microorganisms are harnessed for bioremediation.

- To prevent vitamin A deficiency, rice are modifies to produce a nutrient associated with carrot namely beta-carotene. Every year, vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in 250,000 - 500,000 children every year and in some children risk of death from infectious diseases also increases.

- Yeast are engineered for producing rose oil which is eco-friendly and a substitute for real rose which can be used by perfumers to make luxury scents.

Note: Don't be confused between synthetic biology and genome editing. No doubt in some form synthetic biology is same to genome editing because both involve changing a organism's genetic code. But due to some scientists both the process differs in the methods as how changes in the organism are made.

In synthetic biology, scientists stitch together long stretches of DNA and insert them into the genome of an organism. Whereas in genome editing, scientists use tools to make smaller changes in the DNA of that organism. In fact genome editing tools are used to add or delete small stretches of DNA in the genome.

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Goals of synthetic biology

- To standardise the biological parts, to build novel biological systems.

- To redesign existing biological parts, applied protein design and expand the set of natural protein functions for new processes.

- Synthesising natural products or engineer microbes for producing necessary enzymes.

- To construct a simple genome for a natural bacterium and also to design synthetic genome.

Biosafety concerns

According to the American Biological Safety Association biosafety issues include containment principles, facility design, practices and procedures to prevent occupational infections in the biomedical environment or release of organism to the environment. Also, it is said that the risk classification system of biosafety is based on the inherent capability of microorganisms to cause disease in humans of greater or lesser severity in humans and plants.

We can't ignore that biosafety concern in synthetic biology is the intentional or unintentional release of synthetic organisms into the environment during research and application. Also, it has been argued that there is no risk owing to the homeostasis of biological ecosystems and the vulnerability of synthetic organisms to displacement by native organism. Another important concern is horizontal gene transfer and another biosafety issue is the formation of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Biosecurity concerns

Biosecurity risks are the potential misuse of Synthetic biology like bioterrorism, biowarfare or bioattacks that could derive from the genetic engineering of organisms. As, synthetic biology provides technical support for reviving and constructing dangerous bacteria or viruses. To know the genetic sequence of highly pathogenic bacteria and viruses, a person can take information from websites like GenBank, EMBL and DDBJ and download information from there.

What are the ethical concerns associated with synthetic biology?

A human made cell was created in 2010 named Synthia, a debate on global level related to the ethics of synthetic biology began. Opponents put their views and criticise by saying that people's basic belief will be destroyed with the creation of artificial organisms into nature which may cause environmental and health disasters. Even President Barack Obama expressed his concerns about this research and asked the Presidential Commission to Study the bioethical issues to review the synthetic-biology field and identify appropriate ethical boundaries so that Americans can take benefits of the technology that is synthetic biology and to minimise the identified risks. In 2010, the report "The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies" was released. The experts in the report concluded that the stage will relied on the existing natural host rather than creating life from inorganic chemicals alone.

Five ethical principles were provided in the report to ensure the development of synthetic biology in an ethically responsible manner:

  1. Public beneficence
  2. Responsible Stewardship
  3. Intellectual Freedom and responsibility
  4. Democratic deliberation
  5. Justice and fairness.

Therefore, now you may have come to know about the synthetic biology which is a growing field that holds great promise in several areas of application.

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