'Synthetic biology' may be misused for 'bioterrorism', warn experts

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London, June 10 : Scientists at the University of Nottingham have warned that 'synthetic biology' - a technique popular for its ability to create artificial life by engineering organisms - is at risk of damaging the ecosystem and being abused by terrorists.

In a report, commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the university researchers stress the need for new control and regulations on the use of synthetic biology, highlighting ethical and social concerns over the issue.

They fear that synthetic biology may be misused to spread "bioterrorism", designing new organisms to be hostile to humans.

The authors of the report - Andrew Balmer and Professor Paul Martin - have also expressed concern about the rise of "garage biology", a term they use for experimentation at home.

They point out that there does not exist any policy on the impact of synthetic biology on international bioweapons conventions.

Titled 'Synthetic Biology: Social and Ethical Challenges', the report also expressed worries about the accidental release of synthetic organisms into the environment.

"By their very nature, such biological machines could evolve, proliferate and produce unexpected interactions that might alter the ecosystem," the Statesman quoted the authors, from the Institute for Science and Society at the University if Nottingham, as saying.

The study's authors say that being able to create artificial life in laboratories through synthetic biology raises fears about scientists "playing God".

However, Edinburgh University's Dr Alistair Elfick, who works in the field of synthetic biology, insists that this field is not as dangerous as it is being depicted.

"We need to be aware of these things. We don't need to be overly worried. We are already working in an environment that's very heavily regulated, necessarily, so I don't think there's a need to change much," he says.

"In Europe, we already have a strict set of regulations as to what we can do and how we can do it," he adds.

As to the possibility of the birth of a new class of terrorism, he says: "If you wanted to do bioterrorism, you wouldn't go to the hassle of creating a new organism. There are plenty of ways of doing it already."

And, as to the risk of the accidental release of organisms into the environment, he says: "Our laboratory bacteria are real softies. They wouldn't stand a chance against wild strains of bacteria."

In fact, Dr. Elfick insists, synthetic biology can have many positive applications.

"You make the cell do what you want. You can make it sense contamination, gobble up oil spills, produce drugs, produce fuel," he said.

ANI

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