And so, much like of the opening scenes of an apocalyptic movie, science has reached a great milestone: on May 20th, Doctor Craig Venter and Doctor Hamilton Smith announced the creation of a bacterium with an artificial genome, the first living organism with a synthetic DNA able to reproduce. The era of bioengineered creatures has officially begun, bringing with it the end of disease, hunger and maybe even poverty.
But in all apocalyptic movies the great invention inevitably goes wrong. The environmentalists seem to have picked up on this: only a few days have passed since the discovery was revealed and they are already demanding a ban on synthetic biology. Enter regulation, the obvious answer to all of mankind’s problems.
Yes, bioengineering has negative externalities and poses a threat if misused. However, prohibitions are rarely effective and instead induce markets to go underground. Bans require reinforcement, which some countries do better than others. If someone were planning to use the technology for evil ends, they could very well do so and easily get away with it. Bioterror knows no barriers: viruses can spread in the blink of an eye.
The fact is that the technology is already out there: we would only make ourselves vulnerable by closing our eyes to it. As this Economist article argues, “knowledge cannot be unlearned, so the best way to oppose the villains is to have lots of heroes on your side”. Some regulation and monitoring maybe necessary to discourage the occasional hooligan or two, but further research is crucial so that we can better understand the benefits as well as the dangers of this technology.
Also, quite selfishly, I’m looking forward to a stroll around Jurassic Park.