Synthetic Biology

April 25, 2014 • Volume 24, Issue 16
Should scientists try to create new life forms?
By Beth Baker


Children are tested for malaria at a clinic (Reuters/Sukree Sukplang)
Children are tested for malaria at a clinic in western Thailand. A synthetic version of the antimalarial drug artemisinin is expected to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths from malaria each year, mostly of children in Africa and Asia, but could put local farmers who raise wormwood plants, from which the natural product is derived, out of business. (Reuters/Sukree Sukplang)

Using an advanced form of genetic engineering, scientists are manipulating the structure of cells to create new life forms designed to perform specific functions, such as detecting arsenic in drinking water or producing biofuels from algae. More than 500 companies, universities and other organizations worldwide are conducting research in the new field, known as synthetic biology, and developing products with the technology. Proponents say it will safely revolutionize everything from food and fuel production to medicine and manufacturing. But the field is largely self-regulated, leading critics to warn that synthetic biology — especially when used on an industrial scale — poses potential environmental and health risks that as yet are unexplored. Additionally, some ethicists question whether scientists should be creating new life forms. And others fear that the proliferation of do-it-yourself labs, where the public is free to experiment with synthetic biology, could enable terrorists to use the technology to create bioweapons.

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