If Mary Shelley were writing Frankenstein today, Ian Haydon feels her astonishing tale would almost certainly involve synthetic biology (1). Brilliant and conversant with the latest, highly provocative science of her day, it is easy to imagine she would recognize the far-reaching implications of this new capacity to re-engineer life.
Is Frankenstein Still Relevant Today?
Written 200 years ago, this work still resonates as a disturbing cautionary tale. Acknowledging an analogy between Victor Frankenstein’s macabre fictional endeavors and some of the goals of modern era synthetic biologists, Ian Haydon also draws some sharp contrasts. Citing examples of highly accomplished scientists who are vocal advocates for the cautious use of new genetic manipulation technologies, he suggests this modern community of researchers embodies restraint and forethought. A novelist seeking to craft a terrifying tale would find no modern day versions of Victor Frankenstein in this group of ethical luminaries.
As Above, So Below?
Our true biotechnology story will be written by many participants holding diverse ideas about what is and is not permissible. How will that play out? We may have gotten a hint when a group of researchers announced they had resurrected an extinct relative of the smallpox virus using the tools of synthetic biology (2). Not everyone viewed this development as positive (2).
Scientists exert control over their peers and have at times stepped back from the laboratory bench to examine ethical concerns before moving ahead with new research efforts (3). However, imposing limits on controversial work areas has sometimes provoked bitter dissent and acrimony. In one instance a researcher threatened to ignore restrictions (4), but later decided he would honor the terms set by colleagues and government officials. Perhaps scientists lured by the potential of immense rewards, but stymied by guidelines they deem overly restrictive will one day deliberately defy their colleagues and violate community norms.
A Predictable Future?
Sixteen years ago a group of scientists shocked their peers by showing it was possible to assemble a functional virus in a test tube using synthetic biology methods (5). At that time the work, which took 3 years and quite a bit of labor to accomplish, provided a warning that the world was changing. This proof-of-principle demonstration revealed many viruses could be built from scratch, prompting concerns about its use by bio-terrorists. However, the virus synthesized (a poliovirus) was small and doing something horrendous with this technique like reconstituting smallpox was comfortably far out of reach – then. Check the news, things have changed and we now face the prospect nefarious actors could build smallpox and other threatening agents far more quickly and easily (2).
In one general sense the future of synthetic biology technology is simple to predict; democratization and dissemination. More scientists in more places around the world will have access to ever more powerful, easy-to-use biotechnology tools. Take a look at CRISPR gene editing. In a stunningly short period, CRISPR genetic editing has become a routinely used method in many labs. Like to get into that area yourself? You can buy CRISPR editing kits online and jump right into this burgeoning field.
Pursuing Big Dreams
Developments with CRISPR engineering are coming so quickly it is impossible to keep up with them. Talented and empowered scientists will employ these tools in ways that are impossible to foresee, but it seems safe to bet democratization and dissemination will yield enormous benefits. For the most part we have good reason to believe scientists will work carefully with these new tools.
We have some hints there may be more to this story than what scientists choose to do with emerging biotechnologies (6). As capabilities have dispersed beyond the borders of the traditional scientific and biomedical research communities, we have already seen biohackers employ them in some unconventional ways. For example, how may stem cells benefit humanity? The claim that one person has employed them in pursuit of male enhancement (7) suggests that human ingenuity is about to lead us down some quirky roads.
As biotechnology evolves and scatters over the world, the centuries-old message of Frankenstein may be relevant to more people than ever. If it goes unheeded, the modern day real life incarnations of Victor Frankenstein chasing their eccentric dreams may learn some hard lessons.
(1) Ian Haydon. Bioengineers Today Emphasize the Crucial Ingredient Dr. Frankenstein Forgot – Responsibility. The Conversation, 5 March 2018. bit.ly/2H9BB4X
(2) Kai Kuperschmidt. A Paper Showing How to Make a Smallpox Cousin Just Got Published. Critics Wonder Why. Science, 19 January 2018. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/paper-showing-how-make-smallpox-cousin-just-got-published-critics-wonder-why
(3) David Baltimore et al. A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification. Science 348(6230):36-38. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.full
(4) Declan Butler. 2012. Mutant-flu Researcher Plans to Publish Without Permission. Nature, 17 April 2012. https://www.nature.com/news/mutant-flu-researcher-plans-to-publish-even-without-permission-1.10469
(5) Andrew Pollack. Traces of Terror: The Science; Scientists Create a Live Polio Virus. The New York Times, 12 July 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/12/us/traces-of-terror-the-science-scientists-create-a-live-polio-virus.html
(6) Sarah Zhang. A Biohacker Regrets Publicly Injecting Himself With CRISPR. The Atlantic, 20 February 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/biohacking-stunts-crispr/553511/
(7) Kristen V. Brown. This Guy Injected His Dick With Stem Cells to Try to Make It Bigger. Gizmodo, 27 February 2018. https://gizmodo.com/this-guy-injected-his-dick-with-stem-cells-to-try-to-ma-1823245542