Part of the fun of being involved in a medical museum these days is that the notion of ‘biomedicine’ is so much broader than traditional medicine and health care taught in faculties of medicine and health science.

As a university institution for biomedical science communication we are, by default as it were, confronted with some of the most fundamental issues in the world today. Financial crisis, atomic weapon threats and global warming  aside — the rapid technical development in biology and biomedicine raises some pretty hefty social, political and ethical questions which we, as a museum, can hardly avoid dealing with if we want to stay just minimally atuned to the world around us.

Take the issue of synthetic biology. Forget about the potentials benefits and risks of stem cell biology, nanotech, gene therapy, and so forth. Synthetic biology — the design and construction of new biological systems not found in nature, for example, constructing living cells from simple molecules (proto-cells); creating new biological systems based on biochemical pathways not found in nature; etc — is potentially more powerful, not least for medical therapy and human enhancement. 

Is it safe and secure? Well, of course it isn’t! In yesterday’s issue of Public Service Review: Science and Technology, Markus Schmidt, who leads the SYNBIOSAFE project at the Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management, raises some of the problems involved in the development of synthetic biology:

With the availability of genetic sequence information available on the internet and outsourcing of DNA synthesis to specialised synthesis companies, we are facing the risk that some person with malicious intents might place an order for pathogenic genes.

But there is always two sides to new technologies. In the future, more and more people will probably be able to construct new biological systems (read: democratic technology). Already, the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in Boston invites students from all over the world to construct new biologies. And there are several DIY biotech groups who want to get the techne out of the laboratory, to bring it to the people. Such democratisation of synthetic biology might, as Schmidt rightly observes, lead to a creative revolution similar to that we have seen in the computer industry and the internet. Imagine synthbio 2.0 — love it or hate it.

Schmidt’s institute is only the last in a row of initiatives to discuss the safety and the political, governance and ethical issues involved in synthetic biology. Two years ago a report from the J. Craig Venter Institute discussed the governance problems associated with synthetic biology, and last year a report from the International Association of Synthetic Biology proposed a number of technical solutions for improved biosecurity. And there are several other initiatives around — enough to fill the agenda of a future-looking medical museum.

Schmidt’s analysis is expanded in M. Schmidt, A. Kelle, A. Ganguli-Mitra and H. de Vriend, eds., Synthetic Biology: The technoscience and its societal consequences (2009); there is also a 55 min video here: SYNBIOSAFE: Synthetic biology and its social and ethical implications.

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