Tuesday, 11 May 2010

General Assembly will discuss advances on Synthetic Biology

Part of my job is to guide the Church into new areas of policy making which, as you can imagine, is a dangerous journey at times! At this years General Assembly, (only 10 days away!) one of the reports from the Society, Religion and Technology Project. is on something called synthetic biology. No, I had to look it up the first time too!

It brings together the two disciplines of biology and engineering . It is essentially about redesigning life through the redesign and reassembly of biological systems. The biologist wants to understand living systems better, and the engineer wants to create new things . The biologist identifies the individual bioparts of the living organism and the engineer then standardises the bioparts. Some organisations, like the BioBricks foundation  are already doing this redesigning into a biological "chassis".

This might sound like science fiction, but synthetic biology potentially has direct application in health, energy, the environment and agriculture. Sme parts of the production of the anti-malaria drug Artemisinin have already been developed applying synthetic biology techniques. The development of advanced biosensors for detection of urinary tract infections can be adapted to detect the hospital superbug MRSA (Methycillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Another biosensor can detect arsenic in drinking water which is a major problem in Bangladesh. Another example of synthetic biology based biomaterials is a synthetic version of spider silk. Because of its strength and light weight it can be used in a wide range of applications.

It is astonishing and awe inspiring it its creativity and potential for good…. But as is often the case, scientific progress also raises important ethical questions. What is the right relationship between humanity and nature? How far is far enough, and to what extent should our God-given ability to be creative be hemmed in by moral and ethical considerations? What are the risks in creating what are new living beings, even though they are only micro organisms?

The Kirk is the first church which flags up the ethical and moral questions raised by this important new area of scientific knowledge. I hope the debate is not hindered by the technical words but also see past the “are we playing God?” which is also a theological red herring. This is too important to simply say “No” to, but that doesn’t mean we should just say yes either.

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