June 2008 Archives

The military is beginning to take an active interest in synthetic biology as a technology. At the BioSysBio conference in London in April, Prof Dick Kitney said the UK's Ministry of Defence was sending out its scientists to interview people like him with an interest in synthetic biology.

However, as chief scientific adviser to the MoD, Prof Roy Anderson had something of a leg-up in the area as he was formerly head of the biology department at Imperial College, London — where Prof Kitney is based — and has now returned to the college as rector.

More recently, in the US, the Department of Defense is taking more formal steps. On 11 June, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics John Young wrote to the Defense Science Board to request it to set up a task force on the military applications of synthetic biology.

"The study should survey developments in biotechnology and attempt to project transition paths from research into current and future defense applications. In addition, the study should identify barriers to development and adoption of new applications to include policy issues, scientific and technological talent, and government business practices."

The aim of the study, according to Young, is to expand military applications from those focused on pathogens and therapeutics to more diverse areas such as materials and energy:

"Novel applications, which combine traditional and new research areas, suggest new interdisciplinary fields that will have important defense appplications."

Working out how a cell responds to events is incredibly difficult. In general, cells change the expression of genes in response to signals such as how much food there is or changes in temperature. But the effects on gene expression are complex and, without better models, difficult to predict.

Working at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Shai Kaplan, Anat Bren and others worked out a way of mapping how a set of 20 genes in e coli cells react to changes in sugar levels. E coli is able to use several different sugars as sources of carbon:

"Each sugar system includes transporters that pump the sugar into the cell and enzymes that break it down. Each system also includes a transcription factor that senses the presence of the sugar and accordingly regulates gene expression. In addition, most of the sugar systems are regulated by a master transcription factor called CRP, which senses the starvation of the cell. This master regulator is activated by cAMP, a small molecule produced in the cell upon glucose starvation."

In principle, the sugar genes in the regulatory network should behave in a similar way: their expression should increase with the availability of a given sugar and, according to conventional wisdom, glucose starvation. So, it should be possible to model the system as a set of logic AND gates. But, one study of the lactose-input system showed a more complex logic function: a mixture of an AND and an OR.

Last week, a group of social scientists from the University of Nottingham released their report on the ethical problems facing the technology of synthetic biology. Commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the report called for a "thorough review of existing controls and safeguards" to extend them to synthetic biology.

Not just that. The public needs to be involved and may even be in the position to stop certain kinds of research: "It is vital to recognise the importance of maintaining public legitimacy and support. In order to achieve this, scientific research must not get too far ahead of public attitudes and potential applications should demonstrate clear social benefits."

This is from a different section but covers similar ground: "Partnership with civil society groups, social scientists and ethicists should be pursued as a highly effective way of understanding critical issues, engaging with publics and winning support for emerging scientific fields. However, at the same time it must be recognised that this is a two-way process and that some ethically problematic scientific projects and potentially controversial technologies may have to be abandoned in order to maintain trust."

This all sounds good in principle. But it is a process that could lead to some seriously strange decisions being made as to which branches of biological research are pursued and which are terminated. For a good many of the ethical issues that surround synthetic biology do not lie in the research but in the application. And in many cases, the economics of the application.

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