Synthetic biology, slippery slopes and the bandwagon theory

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I admit, I regret not attending the International Meeting on Synthetic Biology that took place recently. When I sat down to watch the live stream from the comfort of my home after spending half a month touring several countries, I thought I would be glad to rest my weary bones. Instead, there I was, I was kicking myself as I watched the interesting talks by the various speakers. It was an amazing line up and I found myself thinking that there’s so much we don’t know, so much to learn and just so little time! I’m not going to go into the details of the event as they have been succinctly covered in a previous article.

However, I’m going to talk about what really caught my attention – the fact that, on the cusp of this exciting revolutionary science is a tightrope that scientists have to walk on to prevent bioethics from turning into bio-antics in the eyes of the public.

This was brought up when a scientist who is a part of the Human Genome Project (HGP)-write team highlighted the media tsunami they were hit with when the now famous “secret Harvard meeting” took place in May last year. This “meeting” led to a subsequent twitter storm in the science sphere as well as increased displeasure from the public as titles such as “Secret Meeting at Harvard on synthesizing Human Genome From Scratch” conjured up images of designer babies, Jurassic park and Armageddon. Slippery slopes are unavoidable when it comes to science and the public and that is not the only logical fallacy that the field is prey to. After one person comes to the conclusion that anything to do with genetic tampering will lead to the much televised zombie apocalypse, pretty much everyone else jumps onto the bandwagon as well.

Slippery slopes are unavoidable when it comes to science and the public and that is not the only logical fallacy that the field is prey to. After one person comes to the conclusion that anything to do with genetic tampering will lead to the much televised zombie apocalypse, pretty much everyone else jumps onto the bandwagon as well.

The Genome Project-write (GP-write) will oversee a reduction in the costs of engineering and testing large genomes in cell lines more than 1,000-fold within ten years. Image Source : Wikimedia Commons

This misconception is partly due to the lack of understanding between the scientific community and the non-science community rather than the ethics of the science itself. Synthesizing the Human Genome doesn’t necessarily mean synthesizing a whole human but rather working on a cellular level.

On this note, we as a scientific community need to take more efforts to educate and engage the public. The HGP-write team decided to take the backlash as feedback and promptly changed their project name from HGP-write to GP (Genome Project)-write to better reflect their research goals. It’s a long term project spanning 5 years but the main goal is to reduce the costs of synthesizing DNA and most importantly pursuing a worthy project for human betterment.

On the lighter side, the presenter took it in good stride during the talk, throwing in screenshot of an entertaining “fake George Church” account during the presentation.