Synthetic Biology and Infectious Disease: Challenges and Opportunities

California Institute of Technology, United States


The tools of molecular biology (e.g., genetic engineering or synthetic biology) have advanced to the point where it is possible to synthesize the genomes of viruses and small organisms without nuclei (prokaryotes) de novo, and to carry out significant modifications of the genomes of larger microbes and higher organisms with nuclei (eukaryotes). There is also a potential to create novel organisms that have an origin largely independent of evolution. Our ability to predict the properties that genes, both new and old, will confer on organisms is incomplete. As a result, our understanding of how novel organisms will behave is to some extent unknown. The potential hazards associated with engineering organisms are inherently different from those of other fields because the agents involved have the potential to spread from small numbers, to proliferate outside of human control, and to evolve. These points notwithstanding, synthetic biology offers enormous opportunities to better human life, including preventing infectious disease. However, these same tools also offer opportunities for disease creation either by chance or as forms of economic sabotage or terrorism. The ability of engineered organisms to reproduce and to cross international borders, with potential effects on the environment and human health far from their site of origin, creates a unique set of scientific and regulatory issues that are just beginning to be considered. Research, regulation, and education are needed to promote beneficial uses of this technology in a responsible manner that limits opportunities for harm through ignorance, sloppiness, or design.